Few couples on the verge of cohabitation can avoid the fraught moving-van negotiation: how much, and precisely whose, stuff will fill it, and by extension, how the disparate possessions of two households will fit into one. “I’ve collected a few books over the years,” one partner might say, while the other winces and wonders, “How many is a few?”
Kathleen Clark’s unshowy, affectingly plain-spoken new play, “Southern Comforts,” includes that generic romantic-comedy exchange but soon goes on to consider a thornier impasse, pondering not whether two retirement-age newlyweds, Gus Klingman (Larry Keith) and Amanda Cross (Penny Fuller), can live together in peace, but whether they’ll rest that way for eternity.
I think it’s safe to say that few besotted young lovers, in fact or in fiction, have uttered the hurt, plaintive line, “I thought we were gettin’ a stone together,” as does Amanda when she learns that Gus plans instead to take the grave beside his first wife, Helen. Even a plot that’s paid for can thicken.
As Amanda’s dropped “g” indicates, she’s a Southerner, a few rings past a belle but still as pert and cheering as a Tennessee wildflower when she breezes into Gus’s sparsely furnished New Jersey home at the top of the show. (Thomas Lynch designed the cozy single set, washed with seasonal scene changes by Brian Nason’s lights.)
For his part, Gus is a standard-issue coot, albeit with complications: a tidy, taciturn retired stonemason, he relishes the undisturbed quiet since his first wife died five years ago. It was a tight-lipped slog of a marriage, he reports, not a noisy battle; but grim silence is easier to bear when it’s not shared.
Still, the way he sizes up Ms. Fuller’s blond, petite Amanda proves that Gus has some fight left in him. “I can’t get away with too much around you — I like that,” he tells her after a few dates. “Sort of like a good cup of coffee. You keep me awake.”
The modest specificity of that compliment suits Ms. Clark’s play as well. It has a gentle sitcom rhythm and a tidy approach to conflict resolution. At 100 minutes, it’s an economical mix of incident and introspection, and the director, Judith Ivey, keeps the momentum humming as smoothly as a Lincoln Town Car on a Sunday drive, its occupants bickering lightly over directions and stopping occasionally for refreshments. Ms. Fuller and Mr. Keith, seasoned pros both, offer a master class in unforced chemistry, if such a thing could be taught.
The title “Southern Comforts” is misleading, though, and not only because the play, like the stubborn Gus, is set firmly in northern New Jersey. The title would also seem to suggest that this snowy old widower, warmed back to life by the merry widow with the honeyed accent, is the sole beneficiary of this merger. In fact, what’s most delightful, even sneakily sexy, about this December-December romance is that it clearly spreads comfort in both directions.