CONWAY — Two older men who have been linked for over 50 years by a shared love for one woman finally meet in M&D Productions production of "Halpern and Johnson," a thoughtful, funny and honest rumination on life and love.
"Halpern and Johnson," which opened Thursday, Oct. 4, at Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. and is playing Thursday through Saturday until Oct. 20, began as an obscure 1983 TV movie starring Laurence Olivier and Jackie Gleason. Decades later the author Lionel Goldstein expanded the hour-long film to a two-hour play.
As the show opens, Joe Halpern (Rich Russo) is mourning at the grave of his recently deceased wife as another man approaches with flowers. This man, Dennis Johnson (David H. Bownes), reveals that he had a secret relationship with Joe's wife, Florence, that even predates Joe's relationship with her.
What follows is these two different men — Joe is working class and Dennis is an accountant with a tendency for flowery language — discussing the woman they both loved. Both learn things about the woman they thought they knew and have their views on themselves and life challenged.
Dennis has a distinct advantage over Joe since he has been aware of his existence for 50 years and would talk with Florence about Joe and their life together. Dennis even knows Joe's favorite drink and sandwich.
Joe is understandably infuriated to learn of this decades-long deception. Dennis, after lying to himself for years, sees knows nothing wrong with his relationship with Florence as it wasn't sexual. They simply met "thrice a year" to talk. That certainly is innocent enough, but that both Dennis and Florence decided to keep it secret reveals it isn't pure as Dennis would like it to seem. Emotional cheating is still cheating.
Goldstein's script doesn't paint Dennis as a villain and Joe as a saint. Both men are written with complex shading. Each man has both virtues and flaws and are written and portrayed by the actors sympathetically.
Late in the show, Joe reveals information about his relationship with Florence that makes him no better than Dennis and yet, in a way, it was Dennis' behavior that may have created the atmosphere for Joe's actions.
The play is very dialogue heavy with the burden of that falling on just two. Each actor has a full range of emotions to portray: hurt, anger, jealousy, regret, wistfulness and even warmth and compassion. Russo and Bownes prove more than up to the challenge.
Director Ken Martin gets performances from Russo and Bownes that are credible and honest. Each actor handles their lengthy passages of dialogue with ease, but, perhaps more importantly in a show like this, also seem to truly be listening to each other rather than just wait for their turn to speak. Each actor seems present and engaged.
Russo gives a wonderfully expressive performance. His facial expressions as he listens to the supposedly virtuous relationship his wife had with another man are priceless. He also reveals deep pain during a monologue about his past.
Bownes plays Dennis Johnson as a pragmatic and logical man who uses highfalutin language to distance himself from his emotions as if intellectualizing them will make them less painful. The emotions don't stay in check, though. Bownes makes Dennis' love for Florence seem very real especially as he nostalgically remembers when they first met.
"Halpern and Johnson" may simply be two people talking, but when the conversation is this engaging, revealing and relatable that's all you need. M&D's production of "Halpern and Johnson" is only the third ever produced, which makes the show all the more of a splendid discovery.
For more information or tickets, call the box office at 662-7591.