Feisty widow Maxine Levine celebrates her 71st birthday during the Alliance Theatre's new comedy Managing Maxine, but Jana Robbins plays her as the youngest septuagenarian you've ever seen. Robbins describes herself as "at least a decade younger than Maxine" and rules the play like a tart-tongued empress, alternately poised and ingratiating, vivacious and vulnerable as she begins dating after 45 years of marriage.
Atlanta playwright Janece Shaffer pens an amusing, sympathetic portrayal of romance in one's golden years. Maxine begins dating a gentlemanly retired judge named Arthur (Ross Bickell), despite her concerns that he still loves his late wife, not to mention the awkward reactions of their respective daughters, Emmie (Courtenay Collins) and Ivy (Courtney Patterson).
Shaffer offers a cheerful portrayal of seniors and their sex lives – skyrockets literally take flight – and reveal that people are never too old for emotional growth and change. Maxine begins as too physically self-conscious to share Arthur's bed unless they're in total darkness, but later begins coquettishly showing him some skin. In Robbins' bravest, rawest moment, Maxine reaches a low ebb, looks at herself in her underwear and crumples at the toll time has taken on her.
At times Shaffer's comedic instincts seem a little too close to the jokey dialogue and characterizations of Neil Simon, such as the way the play treats the Fruit of the Month Club as innately hilarious, or views unexpected f-bombs and words like "orgasm" as easy laughs. Director Susan V. Booth persistently elevates the play above the sitcom level. Even the stock best friend roles never seem clichéd and the serious themes remain in sight, like the importance of treasuring life's opportunities for passion.
Managing Maxine takes on more serious topics in its second act than it's prepared to fully address. Arthur's daughter Ivy transforms her personal problems into hostility toward Maxine. While Patterson gives such an insightful performance that our hearts go out to the flinty killjoy, Ivy brings more baggage than the play wants to unpack. Shaffer finds lighter fare in Emmie's midlife crisis and marital rut with her husband (a particularly witty, almost sprightly Larry Larson). A quirk of staging undermines the subplot, though: Emmie's kitchen is placed on a high platform above the other levels of the stage, like an out-of-reach shelf, and its physical remoteness separates us from the action up there.
It's probably a coincidence that Managing Maxine covers much of the same material as Cybill Shepherd's misguided Curvy Widow did at the Alliance a year ago. It's as if the playhouse wanted to revisit a similar story and do it right this time.
Managing Maxine mines humor and pathos so successfully that it promises to be a surefire hit with silver-haired audiences. The Alliance should stock up on oxygen and Viagra just in case.
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