My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend is a joyous delight, performed with skill and passion: an irresistible reminder that time flies.
My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend By Christian Duhamel (book and lyrics) and Edward Bell (music and lyrics). Conceived and performed by Charissa Bertels. Directed by Sean Daniels. Staged by the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA, through May 21.
By Erik Nikander
My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend, a one-woman musical about a young actress, Charissa Bertels, who bonds with a much older man, could have gone wrong in so many ways. Worst-case, the show might have followed in the scuzzy footsteps of Robert de Niro’s recent horrendous “comedy” Dirty Grandpa, in which the aging actor hooks up with 32-year-old Aubrey Plaza. Fortunately, My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend provides everything that film didn’t: lovable characters, genuine laughs, and plenty of heart, to name just a few of its noteworthy qualities. And, while the show is remarkably entertaining in its lighter moments, it also manages to explore, with considerable power, earnest questions about life, family, friendship, and happiness. The conclusion Bertels comes to on these matters during the show’s closing number is both simple and profound, a message well worth heeding for those age 80 or otherwise.
The show, based on true events in Bertels’s life, was written and composed by Christian Duhamel and Edward Bell. This world premiere production at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre follows Bertels through her time as a struggling New York performer, trapped in her routine of early-morning auditions and days spent hawking juice samples at supermarkets in her “survival job.” One day, her boredom is livened up by Milton, a sly old man who buys out her entire supply of juice so that she can spend the afternoon chatting with him instead. Though Bertels is initially weirded out by the gesture, she grows to like Milton and his cultured, confident charm. The two become close friends over weekly lunch “dates,” and Bertels is soon forced to admit that Milton has essentially become her 80-year-old boyfriend!
It initially seems odd that Milton, who has such a crucial role in the show and in Bertels’s life, isn’t brought to life by another actor onstage, but Bertels proves herself to be adept at playing the little old man herself. She hunches down a few inches, her voice goes scratchy, and (perhaps most crucially) a wry, knowing glint shines in her eyes. Bertels flips between Milton and her own persona in a way that feels effortless, breezily playing both sides of a conversation and singing, in what might be one of the play’s funniest scenes, both halves of a duet. Even when not embodying an 80-year-old man, Bertels is a terrific lead; her energetic physicality and sharp comic timing ensures that this 90-minute show doesn’t drag for an instant. In one especially hilarious scene, when she believes Milton is about to propose to her, Bertels makes wide-eyed dread funnier than it has any right to be.
Of course, though she deftly manages the play’s comic aspects, Bertels also handles the script’s tragic moments with aplomb. She bares her anguish to the audience in a way that’s always truthful, whether exploring her own heartbreak or Milton’s regrets, which are mostly focused on his painful relationship with his ex-wife and estranged daughter. Though, for the most part, Duhamel and Bell manage to strike a good balance between the show’s silly and serious aspects, there are some instances when the contrast comes off as a little extreme. The most jarring such moment is when, directly on the heels of the delightfully goofy one-woman duet mentioned above, Bertels sings “The Love Left Behind.” It’s a gorgeous, wistful song, exploring Milton’s lifelong regret over the collapse of his marriage. Bertels performs the tune with stirring passion, but the head-spinning contrast between this number and the previous is perturbing.
Apart from such moments of slightly-too-strong emotional contrasts, Sean Daniels’s direction is spot-on. His pacing for the show feels just about perfect; quiet scenes like the poker games at Milton’s apartment feel just as weighty and significant as louder, more kinetic moments, such as Bertels’s no-holds-barred audition for the musical version of A Christmas Story. As Bertels is on-stage for nearly the entire show, Gregory A. Poplyk’s costume design is necessarily more functional than fancy. Neil Patel’s set looks as if someone plucked a high-end apartment straight out of Manhattan (complete with molding around the ceiling and knick knack-covered shelves) and set it down in Lowell. (Frankly, I was about ready to move in.) And the color-changing light panels that are mounted behind the apartment’s towering windows come in handy for Brian J. Lilienthal, whose lighting design proves equally accommodating to Bertels’s artistic verve and Milton’s various flights of fancy.
We may not all be New York actors striving to find out place in the world of theatre, but Bertels’s story proves to be universally compelling. Even those for whom the audition process is a complete mystery will appreciate the pain that accompanies leaving something important unsaid (or saying something that should have remained unspoken). In the show’s closing number, Bertels reminds us that, octogenarian or not, the time we have with our friends and family is painfully short, and should be cherished accordingly. Fortunately, Bertels and the creative team at MRT appear to have taken this message to heart. My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend is a joyous delight, performed with skill and passion: an irresistible reminder that time flies.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.