The layout for Diana Basmajian’s production of Limonade Tous les Jours, the Charles Mee play about May-December love in the time of croissants, is such that the audience sits on either of two sides of a small stage area at Chelsea’s Cell Theater. It’s a tight squeeze, and a problematic one as well. Anyone not sitting in one of the two “front” rows often has a difficult time seeing much of the action. What is clear from any seat, however, is what a star turn Eleanor Handley is giving as Ya-Ya, a divorced Parisian cabaret singer. She meets Andrew (Austin Pendleton) at a café. He’s in his fifties, while she is in her twenties, but the two share something in common. They are both coming off of failed marriages, Andrew to a woman a decade his junior and Ya-Ya to another older man who cheated his marriage away.
The two share something else as well: a love for the word. The two sit together and talk, and over the course of Limonade talk a great deal more. And their willingness to talk about their mutual aversion to love somehow leads to a love affair between the two of them.
Limonade follows a series of conversations between these two characters about the nature of love. Andrew thinks with his head, while Ya-Ya follows her heart. But while Mee’s play wants to show how love can find a way, his work actually has a different problem. He never makes clear why these two characters wouldn’t stay together. They come together immediately and fall into bed almost as easily. Any wall that either of them puts up feels inorganic, meant to stall the work’s inevitable outcome.
Basmajian’s direction shows plenty of smarts. Since the entire action occurs in the same space, she utilizes effective transitions like co-star Anton Briones’ impressive tap number (choreographed by Erin Porvaznika) and several filmed scenes of the lovers frolicking through the streets of Paris (video design is provided by Tee McKnight) to help distinguish between scenes. This suggests some texture to Andrew and Ya-Ya’s relationship, that time has gone by and they have forged a real connection in the moments they share between scenes. And Hilary Noxon’s set is quite functional.
However, other decisions do not work. In addition to the difficulty seeing both leads at the same time, several scenes depict the lovers in post-coital bliss, in such places as a makeshift bed and bathtub. Handley strips down to her undergarments while Pendleton removes nothing more than his shoes, glasses and camera. This inequity is distracting. Either have both actors strip down for realism or let them both pantomime having made love. I spent too much time wondering why this decision was made, and it distanced me from the action.
Truth be told, aside from several Edith Piaf torch numbers ably sung by Handley, there is very little action in Limonade. What there is is plenty of conversation. However, the emotional center of the play never builds. Both characters’ beliefs are clear from Mee’s first scene. We know as much about them twenty minutes in as we would if the play were to carry on for another two hours at the same pace.
Both lead actors seem to be operating on different levels as well. Pendleton is a terrific actor (The Last Sweet Days of Isaac, The Little Foxes) in addition to being an esteemed writer, director and teacher, and he underplays his role here almost too much. He can be so stoic that I often doubted he had any real investment in his affair. The splendid Handley, on the other hand, is a luminous presence and is far more ebullient, as her age naturally dictates. Passion oozes out of every pore of her body. It’s impossible not to fall in love with her onstage – which is why when Limonade asks Andrew to fall out of love with Ya-Ya, it’s too much of a reach.
What Limonade is ultimately lacking is an obstacle, something to put Andrew and Ya-Ya’s burgeoning relationship in jeopardy and make those watching truly care about them. As it stands right now, the only obstacles are those between the audience and the stage.