First Love, currently playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre, takes place in the surrealist world of Magritte, where a young woman (a magnetic Taylor Harvey) wears a top hat that appears in many of the Belgian painter’s pieces and smokes a pipe reminiscent of the one featured in “The treachery of images.”
But a background in art history isn’t necessary to appreciate the charm of First Love. The stage design, with set pieces painted in colors so bright that they seem to have been dipped in liquid candy, creates a world with a slightly altered reality. The characters can have lengthy conversations about the nature of romance with stylized, lovingly crafted dialogue by playwright Charles Mee, that’s sometimes hard to imagine coming from the mouths of real human beings who aren’t professional writers. On this brightly colored stage, where slightly fantastical elements come into play but the emotions are always real, Harold (Michael O’Keefe) and Edith (Angelina Fiordelissi) can be simultaneously analytical and poetic without suspending disbelief.
The premise of the play is simple: two people meet and fall in love, both for the first time in their lives. It’s a classic meet-cute with a twist, because the protagonists are both much older than the typical leads in a romantic comedy. Harold and Edith are in their sixties. They’ve both been married before – Harold more than once, and has had children – but Edith shares that she’s never truly been in love until now. Harold never repeats that sentiment, but it’s implied that he feels the same way, and that’s exactly what terrifies him. Their love story develops under the eye of the Young Woman who takes on many forms as a waitress, a flower seller, and mostly a Cupid figure who observes their romance with an amused eye, sometimes intervening to help them. (She’s noticeably absent when conflict arises between them.)
As an independent woman who has lived an adventurous life with few regrets, Fiordelissi shines as Edith in the flush of new love, and immediately wins the audience to her side in her openness and spirit. O’Keefe has the harder job as Harold, who is far more beaten down by life, and sometimes speaks so harshly to Edith that we’re left wondering what exactly she sees in him. Occasionally, it’s hard to tell whether his performance is detached, or if Harold the character is detached, forcing himself to hold back emotion to keep himself from being hurt again. That said, few actors can portray a scene of a man beating up an inflatable kiddie pool in a fit of petulance, followed by a teary monologue that opens a window into his pain, with all of the humor and heartbreaking gravity that the scenes require.
First Love runs just under ninety minutes and is a play that feels like it doesn’t know how to end. I could have used ten more minutes to resolve the story, or at least get a peek at how, or if, Harold and Edith could manage to build a life together. Perhaps this feeling is another part of the mystifying nature of romance – are we ever really ready for a love story to end?