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Stella & Lou at Northlight Theatre | Theater review

Bruce Graham's new play about a pair of friends who might become more late in life has all the depth of a greeting card.

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
1/4
Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Stella and Lou at Northlight Theatre

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
2/4
Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Stella and Lou at Northlight Theatre

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
3/4
Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Stella and Lou at Northlight Theatre

 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
4/4
Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Stella and Lou at Northlight Theatre

When Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham's The Outgoing Tide debuted at Northlight a couple of seasons ago, I found it a collection of sentimentalisms and clichés that was rescued from its mawkishness by the skillful work of its cast, mainly John Mahoney and Rondi Reed. Graham's latest only reinforces my impression of his Hallmark-card outlook on the world. (Fittingly, Graham actually has a TV series premiering on the Hallmark Channel this summer.)

Lou (Francis Guinan) is the proprietor of a dingy old-man bar in Philly (convincingly rendered by scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge); Stella (Rhea Perlman) is an ER nurse and bar regular who, we eventually learn, was also a primary caregiver for Lou's late wife when she passed away two years earlier. Stella arrives at the tavern on this particular night after steeling up her courage to ask Lou out on a date. (Ed Flynn gets some sympathy out of the thankless, non-title role of Lou's younger employee, whose frustration with his fiancée's wedding plans serves only to fuel the older pair's main plotline.)

Graham comes near to fetishizing his blue-collar characters' "old neighborhood" mentality, with repeated references to "hitting the number" in the lottery, and pandering generational shaming over texting and tattoos. Guinan works admirably with the limited emotional palette he's given, but Perlman, best known for her iconic role as wisecracking waitress Carla on Cheers, comes across as oddly stiff and mannered here. You want to root for Lou and Stella to find companionship with each other, but their connection never feels very deep.

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