GLOUCESTER — It’s a blizzardy New Year’s Eve in South Boston, and Mary Antonelli would like to make one thing clear to Joe LaCedra, an old schoolmate who is fuming in her living room: “I don’t want to be murdered by somebody who’s mad at me.’’
Small wonder that Joe compares her to Edith Bunker. Yet Mary is no dingbat, and within the skewed universe of Jack Neary’s “Auld Lang Syne,’’ now at Gloucester Stage Company, there’s a certain logic to what she’s saying. As the clock ticks toward her midnight deadline, Mary’s focus is unwavering while she desperately tries to enlist Joe in a very specific, very curious mission.
Under the zippy direction of Douglas Lockwood, “Auld Lang Syne’’ is a slight but likable comedy-drama that furnishes a roomy showcase for the husband-wife acting team of Richard Snee and Paula Plum.
That duo knows a thing or two about how to balance contrasting elements, and a good thing, too, because “Auld Lang Syne’’ otherwise might tip over. Neary’s play makes hairpin turns from a “Who’s on First?’’-style comedy of misunderstanding to wrenching personal revelations to quasi-thriller action, a sometimes-wobbly trajectory expertly navigated by Plum and Snee.
By the way, not that there was ever reason to doubt that Plum is a trouper, it’s still worth noting that she brings off her performance without a hitch despite wearing a patch over her left eye, having sustained an injury in a gardening mishap the day before the performance I saw.
It’s a pleasure to watch her and Snee settle into their roles as if they’d known these characters — or, rather, been these characters — all their lives. Mary and Joe have not seen each other since they attended elementary school together in South Boston, and in the intervening half-century-plus they have been pretty thoroughly kicked around by fate. The trap for Snee in his role as written is that the actor could resort to dese-dem-dose caricature. The trap for Plum is that she could descend into bathos. Both avoid those pitfalls with room to spare.
Like George V. Higgins’s Eddie Coyle, Joe is a low-level gangster who projects an intimidating presence but is in reality more pitiable than scary. Joe’s family life is a mess, and he doesn’t derive a lot of satisfaction from his job, either, which is to lean on people who owe money to the mob. Though the word in Southie is that he’s a killer, Joe has actually never rubbed anyone out, and he’s never gotten a sniff of the big bucks that flow to bona fide hitmen. A few days away from his 65th birthday, Joe describes himself glumly as an “errand boy for people I don’t like, who don’t like me.’’
Mary’s world is quite different. Her simply but fastidiously furnished home (designed by J. Michael Griggs) bespeaks a well-ordered existence, and her cardigan sweater and pink slippers (costumes are by Molly H. Trainer) confirm the sense of someone who doesn’t exactly make a habit of walking on the wild side. Tinsel left over from the Christmas holiday still twinkles in her living room, but Mary is in a far from festive mood.
When her husband was on his deathbed 17 years earlier, she promised that she would be with him on their 30th anniversary, which falls on this New Year’s Day. Now, dangling a large wad of cash, Mary is pressuring Joe to tap into what she presumes is his professional skill set so she can be reunited with her husband in what she assumes will be heaven. She divulges other details about her life that suggest why she wants to take this drastic step. Joe is having none of it, but Mary persists and persists, pulling out all the stops to manipulate Joe toward her unusual ends while he pushes back with equal force.
As we wait to see how this scenario will play out, we can savor Neary’s mordantly witty dialogue, which occasionally veers into shtick as Mary and Joe debate whether or not there’s an afterlife and other religious matters. (Would someone as obviously intelligent as Joe really refer to Mary Magdalene as “Madigan’’? That’s something a different Bunker — Archie — would say).
Even when the script falters, though, Plum and Snee do not. This Gloucester Stage production is further proof that these two auld acquaintances should never be forgot.