One is a fluke, two a coincidence, three a trend. For those keeping count, Patrick Brown’s newly remounted play, Puppy Love, is (at least) the fourth recent Jamaican production to feature a May-December romance. (That’s where one partner is way younger than the other, like Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate.) The other three are Dream Merchant by Adrian Nelson, Me and Mi Chapsie by Aston Cooke and White Witch by Jane Crichton.
In Brown’s plays, people don’t stay true to themselves or each other
Differences? Those three featured older women in trysts with younger men; Puppy Love flips the genders. Dream Merchant and White Witch didn’t focus on the age disparity, while Me and Mi Chapsie and Puppy Love, as their titles foretell, do. But collectively they beg a question. Why are we, or at any rate our playwrights, preoccupied with this particular taboo?
Before we try to answer, let’s talk about Puppy Love and its fulsome foursome. Oliver Samuels (busy working abroad for the past few months) and Dahlia Harris (busy working here at home—she was the older woman in Chapsie), portray Dick and Denise, a couple on the cusp of sixty. They’ve been together exactly 30 years. And they look it. In behaviour and appearance, Dick and Denise are instantly recognizable as every comfortable middle-aged couple you know. She has bridge on Saturdays; he has dominoes on Sundays. They’re happily married, which in Patrick Brown’s world means they’re miserable.
Dick’s best friend, business partner and confidante is Harry (Earle Brown), whose 20-year-old daughter, Karen (Natalee Cole), has a jones for her Uncle Dick. Her pursuit, and her uncle’s resistance, provide the plot and the punchlines. It’s a fun and fast two hours, thanks to a controlled performance from Mr Samuels, agile direction from Trevor Nairne and astute writing from Mr Brown that keeps the audience one step ahead of the characters.
Mr Samuels enjoys an enduring popularity with the Jamaican people, as evidenced by patrons’ applause as the show began. That appreciation must taste bittersweet to the old comedian, for it underscores the paradox of celebrity—as it liberates, it also confines. The people who fill the Pantry Playhouse want to see the man from their television sets—the smiling man from Oliver at Large and those cheese ads—not the lonely hardworking husband, Dick. So the former Pantomime actor aims for a sensible compromise in Puppy Love, delivering the dialogue on its merit, with only the occasional indulgence to his over-familiar persona.
Still, he has an intuitive sense of pace and enough experience to slow down potent moments. Ms Harris makes a capable straight woman to Oliver’s funny man, suitably unaware of her double entendres. Denise and Marilyn (her character from Chapsie) share an income bracket, a wardrobe and a lack of fulfillment, so Ms Harris borrows from one role for the other, using the same vocal register and class affectation. Likely, this says more about the roles available to Ms Harris than about her creativity, because her choices in Puppy Love ring true.
Earle Brown holds his own as the distraught father. Ms Cole, however, has the misfortune of acting opposite the veteran Mr Samuels, and her relative inexperience and inexpressiveness shows. On the plus side, she provides an opportunity to admire the outstanding set designed by Patrick Brown.
Since Puppy Love has both unity of action and unity of place (the missing Aristotelian unity being time), Brown, a civil engineer by training, throws undivided attention to creating Dick and Denise’s uptown townhouse. Kitchen, dining area, living room and den fit like jigsaw pieces in a palette of deep red, light green and beige. Stairs evoke an upper floor. Architectural angles imply a hallway, a patio and the rest of the house. The space is aesthetically inviting, theatrically useful and, best of all, looks like people live in it. Too often, set dressers underestimate how much junk it takes to make the fake look real—here, the bar has shelves, the shelves have liquor, and the liquor has empty glasses waiting on it. Superb.
That’s right, you’re still waiting on an answer, aren’t you? Our blend of poverty, paternalism and prayer might be a fertile environment for such relationships. Taboos tend to thrive in poor, religious cultures. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that our theatre season traditionally begins the day after Christmas. May December bring May-December once more.