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Everyone gets a second chance at love in Bruce Graham’s numbingly competent play

From left, Penny Slusher, Francis Guinan and Ed Flynn  in Stella & Lou

From left, Penny Slusher, Francis Guinan and Ed Flynn in Stella & Lou


Stella and Lou

Town Hall Theatre, Galway


It’s Friday night in Lou’s bar in Philadelphia, which, at its busiest stage of the evening, will serve just two customers. This seems like unsteady business for a bar, but it suits the economics of contemporary American theatre, which prefers to keep its locations fixed, its style naturalistic, its audience reliable and its dressing rooms under-populated.

Unfortunately, that also narrows the possibility of advancing theatrical craft or narrative ambition in this production from Chicago’s Northlight Theatre. The three characters we meet in Bruce Graham’s numbingly competent play, and a couple more we don’t, are essentially variations on the same theme: old age and loneliness.

Framed by an awkwardly eulogy for Riley, one of the bar’s departed customers – endearingly delivered by Ed Flynn’s schlubby regular, Donnie – Graham’s play is a romantic comedy about missed opportunities and second chances. In the course of 80 minutes or so, Stella (Penny Slusher), a divorced nurse planning to retire to Florida, will make a hesitant last play for Lou (Francis Guinan), a shy widowed nice guy, while Donnie will get cold feet about his wedding to his partner Donna, whose weirdly similar name gives you some indication of the play’s breadth and diversity of character.

There is ample material here for a less than athletic sitcom episode, and only slightly fewer jokes; as a play it feels overextended. We learn something of the life of Riley, but his secrets are held out merely as a cautionary example to anyone who would shun responsibility or company. Donnie speaks of Donna only in terms of her looks (she’s hot, has a nice face and does pilates), and though Slusher and Guinan have personable presence, it’s hard to see the doggedly sympathetic Stella as anything other than an antidote to Lou’s self-pitying isolation.

Instead, the play seems more earnest in its pandering to the prejudices of anyone who feels uneasy in the modern world. Stella tut-tuts her work colleagues’ fascination with Facebook and her daughter-in-law’s tattoos, Lou balks at the suggestion of introducing wi-fi to the bar, and Donnie’s role is ultimately to straighten up, fly right, and respect his elders. (“He’s a good kid,” says Lou.) It’s a comforting fantasy, in other words, with barely an edge of hard truth. Nobody even seems to pay for their drinks.

Until Jul 21

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