Lionel Goldstein's Halpern & Johnson, now onstage at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, is the story of two men brought together by the death of a woman who was central to both their lives. Despite an engaging premise, Goldstein's adaptation of his own 1983 HBO teleplay Mr. Halpern & Mr. Johnson (which starred Jackie Gleason and Sir Laurence Olivier) falls short of its potential to explore the relationships between married men and women.
Joseph Halpern, played by Hal Linden (of TV's Barney Miller), is an abrasive and grumpy widower who seems incapable of expressing his sense of loss and love for his deceased wife Florence. At her gravesite Halpern happens upon a stranger, Dennis Johnson (veteran stage actor Brian Murray), who unexpectedly describes Florence with affection as his dear friend and lost love. The two men could not be more different, so much so that it makes you wonder how Florence could have married such a sarcastic grump, especially when her first love is an attractive man who was interested in her opinions and feelings.
The tension between Halpern and Johnson is the play's fulcrum, but its effectiveness requires us to see the qualities that attracted Florence to them, to sympathize with them, and come to embrace their flawed characters as they gradually accept each other's significance in Florence's life. Unfortunately this never happens. One reason is Linden's performance. Fraught with affected gesticulation and inconsistent dialect, his Halpern comes off as a caricatured sourpuss next to the sincerity of Murray's Johnson. Without a sympathetic Halpern, we're left with a tale of unrequited love, not the compelling love triangle that was intended.
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