Contributor Marcus Scott takes a trip to the hospital with Lottie and Leo, one of the plays that appeared at the Midtown International Theatre Festival.
This generation of playwrights and songwriters, a coterie of in-betweeners, love crafting purgatory dramas. Why are they obsessed with waiting rooms? Weren’t they out of fashion when Jean-Paul Sartre made the bold statement that “Hell is other people” in his 1944 existential magnum opus, No Exit? And didn’t the French writer sort of hint at the dangers of being a hermit and you know, getting out? At the intimate 99-seat black box Dorothy Strelsin Theater, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house of the Lifetime movie special cum off-off-Broadway show, Lottie and Leo, a 50-minute play about two cracker-munching elderly shut-ins who meet a young man in the waiting room of a hospital. This wholesome lesson in respecting your elders plays like a PSA, with all of the sentiment and sugar of licorice.
Twittling his fingers alone in the waiting room of an unspecified Memorial Sloan Kettering, Matthew, a cancer-stricken white male in his mid-thirties, is joined by an nonagenarian African-American couple Leo and Lottie. Together 75 years, Lottie tells the story of how the two met when she was a green performer with a desire to sing the American Songbook and Leo was a well-connected pianist and accompanist. Now Leo, 94, and Lottie, 93, are toward the end of their lives. Leo, a vet who served in World War II, wears a pacemaker and has developed an aggressive case of Alzheimer’s disease.
Though he has a sharp memory of the past, he forgets within moments what has taken place in the present. Lottie, the show’s protagonist, has beaten breast cancer and colon cancer but doesn’t look like she is having much luck escaping the clutches of multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer affecting her bone marrow. It’s the same cancer affecting the chipper Matthew. Throughout Michael F. Bruck’s one act play, Lottie and Leo share their stories about falling in love and coming of age in the Golden Age of jazz in Harlem in the 1930s and ‘40s where they schmoozed and rubbed elbows with icons Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday. Jazz enthusiast and record collector Matthew is in seventh heaven with the stories. And for a while, we are smitten.
But then the story dabbles in the cliché. Matthew, wallowing in self-pity, broke up with his fiancé and the love of his life shortly after discovering he was diagnosed, and longs for a love he can call his own; understandably he doesn’t want his partner to sacrifice anything, which is exactly why Lottie was there to change his mind. Other moments of familiarity are the fact that Matthew’s grandfather was also a vet who served in the Korean War. But perhaps the moment of truism came when it was revealed that the couple’s child, who died in the Vietnam War, was also named Matthew. By show’s end, there’s a sigh of been there / seen it. Especially when the Lifetime TV stylized button at the climax sees Matthew offering to visit once a week to take care of the elderly couple; it truly inspires frustrations abundant.
Nothing in Lottie and Leo feels like it is screaming to be heard or examined. The play in this sense, only acts as a passive and slightly condescending war cry that the mature were once young and hip, too. Clearly written by younger writer, maybe the take away here is not that older people were once “with-it” but how younger writers superimpose ageism and obliviousness on narratives by older people in an effort to curtail their understanding of adulthood in a youth-obsessed America. If that’s the case, invest in a cryogenic chamber now. It’s all down hill from here.
Marcus Scott, an MFA graduate of NYU Tisch, is a playwright, musical theater writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Elle, Out, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Giant, Hello Beautiful and Edge Media Network.