LOWELL - “Love is fleeting and embarrassing and debasing and for the stupid,’’ proclaims a woman named Margaret Whitney, even as she prepares to test her own proposition by reconnecting with the reprobate she divorced two decades ago.
“Mrs. Whitney,’’ John Kolvenbach’s too-clever-by-half comedy, now at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, explores the disruptive consequences of that reunion: for Margaret, for her ex, for his current wife, for his son, and for the longtime friend of Margaret who’s carrying a torch for her.
As a study of the wayward path of love, “Mrs. Whitney’’ has its undeniable pleasures. Kolvenbach, whose “Fabuloso’’ was performed at Merrimack Rep in 2010, is manifestly a talented fellow, and he understands that romantic folly is not a phenomenon confined to teenagers.
But everyone in “Mrs. Whitney,’’ from a 20-year-old male college student to 60-year-old Margaret (Deirdre Madigan), talks in the same rat-a-tat, hyperarticulate, hyperanalytical fashion. Call it Aaron Sorkin Syndrome. None of Kolvenbach’s characters seem able to make it through a sentence without anatomizing each irony or contradiction encountered along the way.
Even though their tortured ambivalence is obviously part of the playwright’s point, there are too many moments when a character is delivering a mini-speech about her or his feelings and you find yourself wishing Kolvenbach had heeded Gertrude’s admonition to Polonius in “Hamlet’’: “More matter, with less art.’’ Or, less elegantly: Shut up and feel, already.
If the playwright wants us to consider the ways in which love can be fundamentally irrational, a one-sided battle between the head and the heart, we need to see more of the workings of the latter and fewer of the former. Nor has director Kyle Fabel found a way to balance the farcical and slapstick elements of “Mrs. Whitney’’ with those moments when the play aims for emotional heft.
It is, after all, a deep sense of loneliness that, irresistibly if not plausibly, impels Margaret to track down Tom Whitney (Dennis Parlato), her no-goodnik of an ex-husband.
Margaret, played by Madigan with a nicely wry edge of self-awareness, feels at loose ends. It’s Christmas, and her nest is empty. The daughter she had with Tom is grown up, newly married, and far away. Margaret never remarried and, as the play’s title suggests, a chunk of her identity remains strangely bound up in her marriage to a man who was apparently an epic drunk and not exactly a candidate for the Fatherhood Hall of Fame, either. (There is no mention of Tom paying child support or staying in touch with his daughter).
So why initiate contact with this lout?
“I would like to confirm his uselessness. I would like to have that fact reestablished,’’ Margaret tells her nebbishy friend Francis (Joel Colodner), adding: “I hope to find him insufficient and to know this quickly and to return home and to take up sewing.’’
Not really, of course. What she’s after is the possibility of a second chance and a new lease on life. What she finds, when she arrives at Tom’s house, is his fifth wife, the volatile Louisa (Rebecca Harris), thoroughly fed up and ready to throw him out - or worse - and Tom’s son, Fin (Jay Ben Markson), from one of the intervening marriages.
(By the way: In a play set in our Google-saturated present, would Margaret really have had to look Tom up in the phone book to discover that he lived nearby, and would she really have known nothing of his life?)
Eventually, Tom arrives on the scene. The rapid patter between him and Margaret generates a few sparks, but mostly seems glib and arch. Parlato does a fine job, though, in conveying Tom’s roguish appeal.
But will Margaret still be susceptible to it, after all these years? Is Francis, the rival Tom does not even know, prepared to yield the field without a fight? And what of poor Fin?
The lad has come home from college for the holidays, lugging several large duffel bags that might as well be filled with grievances, so copious are his complaints about his old man. Then again, he is justified: Tom breezed in and out of Fin’s childhood, leaving him in the care of successive wives who were virtual strangers to the boy.
It’s telling that the scenes of bonding between Margaret and Fin are among the play’s most memorable. She gets to revisit a maternal role that was precious to her, he finally gets a taste of what it’s like to have a real mother, and we all get a chance to see the better play that “Mrs. Whitney’’ could have been.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.