Janece Shaffer has created one of the most fascinating females to grace a new play.
In Shaffer’s cute, funny, touching and refreshingly adult comedy “Managing Maxine,” receiving a wonderful Midwest premiere deftly directed by Marya Spring Cordes and attractively designed by Tamara L. Honesty for the Human Race Theatre Company, writer/professor Maxine Levine, newly 70, desires to love again. However, her mission is rather complicated, which is typical of romance whether teenage or septuagenarian. Since Maxine hasn’t dated since the Kennedy Administration and suffers from a Blanche DuBois aversion to natural light, her courage and self-esteem has understandably depleted. But despite the idiosyncrasies within her brash, loveable, stern and endearing temperament, she meets her white knight in the form of the exciting yet practical retired judge Arthur Rinzler. Maxine and Arthur’s relationship naturally blossoms with the potential for marriage, but questions and expectations regarding their respective children/families emerge to chip away at their bond. More importantly, Arthur is reticent to evolve and loosen the feelings he still has for his late wife, a concern deeply testing the couple.
Shaffer, boldly showcasing geriatric bedroom naughtiness with blush-worthy verve (“I think I need to take a breath mint to my upper thigh”), relies heavily on asides, which has a tendency to diminish narrative appeal as scenes progress. Still, her three-dimensional Maxine is superbly realized by New York-based actress and Tony nominated producer Jana Robbins (“Ragtime”). Robbins, who possesses a Linda Lavin quality and left an indelible impression as the tipsy titular character of the Human Race’s 2011 production of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” has been associated with “Maxine” since the play’s 2009 world premiere at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. From the inviting first scene, which finds Maxine nervously giddy about her first date with Arthur, it’s apparent how tailor-made the role is for her and how exceptionally she executes the emotional highs and lows, particularly becoming heartbreaking late in Act 2 when Maxine strips down in an honest moment of traumatizing self-examination. She’s also a first-rate comedienne who understands the importance of keeping Maxine’s humor level-headed instead of teetering into the cartoonish, over-the-top realm.
Steve Vinovich, whose extensive stage and screen credits includes Jerry Herman’s ill-fated but tunefully rich 1979 musical “The Grand Tour” and the films “The Santa Clause” and “Awakenings,” is simply terrific as Arthur. Genially seductive and totally charming, Vinovich keeps his innate chemistry with Robbins at fever pitch. He also establishes a warmly sincere and protective rapport with Michelle Zimmerman, who makes a fine return to the Human Race as Arthur’s disapproving, icy daughter Ivy.
Additionally, Debra Whitfield and Tim Lile are excellent as Maxine’s fussy daughter Emmie and discontented son-in-law Larry trying to rekindle their loveless marriage, a relatable subplot that evolves with potency and never feels inconsequential. “Try to remember what it was like in the beginning” is not only sound advice intended for Emmie and Larry but for anyone who has ever said “I do.” Kay Bosse and Scott Stoney respectively provide great comic relief and brief yet striking moments of depth as Maxine’s amiable neighbor Joanne and Arthur’s earthy buddy Louis.
The Human Race has broadened its support of new plays this season and certainly found a gem in “Maxine,” which warmly suggests it’s never too late to love and be loved. By and large, this crowd-pleasing play seems bound for Broadway and could be another Tony nominated vehicle for Robbins.
“Managing Maxine” continues through Sept. 23 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St., Dayton (click here for full schedule). Act One: 60 minutes; Act Two: 55 minutes. Tickets are $19.50-$40. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit http://humanracetheatre.org