A Cable From Gibralter

Photo Source: John Quilty
In a theatrical era rampant with 90-minute intermissionless rants, I'm all for someone harking back to the well-made three-act play. Should the playwright be inspired by the likes of Noël Coward, so much the better. But two intervals and a nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time do not by themselves a romantic comedy make. Author Daniel Meltzer has clearly tried to revive the Coward model for this slim look at the lives of two people over the course of 90 years. Unfortunately, he left out both the romance and the comedy.

"A Cable From Gibraltar" consists of three meet-cutes between M and F, as they are labeled in the hospital at birth. The noncouple's second- and third-act encounters—in middle age at a fishing dock and nearby café and on their joint 90th birthday as opposing generals (!) on an unnamed battlefield—are as vague and tentative as that first meeting in the maternity ward, though mercifully minus the pee-pee jokes. The protagonists never even acquire names, much less any serious or believable connection. What we are left with is an underlying sweetness and a sense of regret about missed opportunities, an apt metaphor for the play itself but not nearly enough to satisfy an audience. The play's title, another remote, telegraphed metaphor, is equally tenuous.

Anachronisms and verbal juxtapositions abound but aren't amusing. The babies use words like "ergo" and "humongous" yet don't understand where the "wet" in their diapers comes from. The seaside café serves Rainbow Trout Depardieu, among other signature variations on that fish, but Meltzer fails to explain out loud why the actor-named dish is funny.

Director Robert Kalfin and his cast of four, to their extreme credit, have applied considerable talent and energy to the enterprise, as if it had indeed been written by Coward. Roger Clark and Jeannine Taylor labor mightily to make their respective ciphers letter-perfect, right down to their English accents, which are as appalling as they are irrelevant: Only a testy, wheelchair-bound tea-drinking exchange on the battlefield betrays even a hint of any uniquely British characteristics. David Csizmadia and Deborah Radloff fare better as French servants, both with their accents and character development, such as it is. At least they have names: Alsace and Lorraine. That's the height of wit in this script.

Costume designer Susie Gebresillassie dresses her late-in-life characters on the battlefield niftily but inexplicably in World War I costumes. Carl Tallent's set designs for the second and third acts are colorfully arresting and evocative of their locales. For Act 1, though, he's less successful: His baby ward is as dismal and rickety as the content of the act itself.

Presented by and at Medicine Show Theatre, 549 W. 52nd St., 3rd floor, NYC. Feb. 12–28. Thu. and Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.