Paula Plum and Richard Snee Shine in Gloucester Stage ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (4 Stars)

 – Written by Jack Neary; Directed by Douglas Lockwood; Featuring Paula Plum & Richard Snee; Presented by The Gloucester Stage Company at the Gorton Theater 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA through July 27th.

There are times when God (or the universe, depending on your belief system) does indeed work in very mysterious ways, often putting seemingly random or incongruent people in our lives to help us on our individual journeys. Such is the case with ‘Auld Lang Syne’, the thoroughly entertaining Boston premiere of playwright Jack Neary’s charming comic drama that puts two very different people together for a brief (but meaningful) moment in time.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and retired school teacher Mary Antonelli (Paula Plum) is hoping to “ring out the old” in a very special way. As the play opens, we see her sitting on her couch in her South Boston home, listening to holiday tunes, when a loud series of knocks interupts the quiet. She opens the door for a  seeming stranger, Joe LaCedra (Richard Snee), who may or may not be a local gangster. We learn that Mary has contacted Joe and has a simple business proposition for him for which she is willing to pay a rather large sum of money: Kill her before midnight so that she can fulfill a deathbed promise to her late husband to join him in heaven. Joe is not ready to admit that he’s what she thinks he is (which she has on good authority from church folk) much less do the dirty deed, and we spend the next 100 minutes or so watching Mary plead, manipulate, scheme and threaten Joe to try and get her wish. Which after a somewhat lengthy set-up is both funny and moving to watch.

It turns out that Mary and Joe were classmates at South Boston’s Gate of Heaven Elementary School, but their paths diverged widely from there, especially from a religious standpoint. And although Joe barely knew Mary existed before she contacted him to off her, Mary seems to know an awful lot about Joe, which keeps him on guard against her seemingly bizarre lines of questioning. The wordplay between Mary and Joe is simple and anything but direct, and makes for some great comic moments, particularly involving Mary’s Catholic beliefs versus Joe’s absolutist certainty that it’s all bunk.

When Joe asks Mary if she plans to have marital relations with her deceased hubby when she gets to heaven, she incredulously responds, “There is no sex in heaven!”. To which Joe replies, “Then why would they call it heaven?” It’s not only the best joke in the show, it also points up the divide between the two belief systems, neither of which seems to be working very well for its adherents.

Plum and Snee absolutely nail their characters, never reducing them to caricatures. The pair are actually a real-life married couple, but as testament to their chops, they couldn’t seem farther apart. While many playwrights would take Mary’s seemingly ridiculous beliefs and turn them into easy jokes, Neary and Plum make us understand the comfort she gets from her faith, especially after some of her life details are revealed. Snee’s Joe is equally well-drawn, and he delivers an authentic and believable performance of a two bit hood without playing to stereotypes. I spent some time in my life with guys like him, and Snee and the playwright combine forces to create a truly three dimensional character. He has paid a price for the life he has led, but nearly all of it is his own doing, whether he can admit it or not.

Like many good comedies, pain and tragedy lie at the core of this story. So the show is not generally laugh out loud funny, but there are some nice, “truthy” laughs throughout the play. This is a show well worth the drive for Boston theater goers. For more info, go to: