Caricatures in search of a plot

Jack Weatherall and Rae C. Wright in “The Last Days of Mickey & Jean.’’ Jack Weatherall and Rae C. Wright in “The Last Days of Mickey & Jean.’’ (Meghan Moore)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / March 23, 2010

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LOWELL — Create a character much like fugitive mobster Whitey Bulger, toss in his loyal girlfriend, set the scene in Paris, and add another character from Southie to keep them on their toes. Sounds like the perfect ingredients for a play, but Richard Dresser’s “The Last Days of Mickey & Jean,’’ which is having its world premiere at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, misses the mark.

Mickey (Jack Weatherall) and Jean (Rae C. Wright) are enjoying Mickey’s “early retirement,’’ traveling around the world as tourists, arguing about visiting zoos or museums. After seven years, they’ve landed in Paris, and hotels have lost their luster. The stress of living out of a suitcase offers some interesting possibilities for character development, but Dresser keeps it all on the surface, in banter that never rises above a series of unrelated comic sketches.

At first this seems like the story of people growing old together not so gracefully, with jokes about AARP and deteriorating health, but you can almost hear a tinny laugh track punctuating the punch lines. One entire scene is built around Mickey insisting he has cancer because “Joey’’ did. “Joey,’’ we finally learn, was his dog. (Cue the laugh.) Another scene follows the pair’s suicide pact, in which they reveal a series of increasingly outrageous secrets from their past, even though neither one of them has any intention of going through with the suicide. This is a perfect moment for Mickey and Jean to reveal what keeps them together, but Dresser chooses the easy laugh, and we’re left with caricatures instead of characters.

Some of Dresser’s material is lifted from the newspapers, including jokes about derivatives, crisis management, family budgets, and constant fear, but just when he seems ready to dig deeper into a story about regret, revenge, and the importance of home, he shifts gears again. Bobby (Christopher McHale), the fellow from Southie who reminds them of what they left behind, morphs into two other ridiculous characters completely superfluous to the plot. At one point, Dresser creates a rhyme about Doyle, O’Boyle, Foyle, and loyal, that sounds like a playwright pleased with how clever he is, rather than a zany moment for a desperate character that moves the plot along.

Because Dresser never quite decides what his play is about, director Charles Towers has a tough time pulling the pieces together. He chooses to show slides of Paris during the blackouts that divide the scenes, but this gives the action a herky-jerky feel, and the slide show quickly wears out its welcome. The actors, too, struggle to find some continuity, and while Weatherall and Wright do their best to commit to this awkward couple, McHale is completely lost. To add to the disjointedness, none of these actors delivers anything resembling a convincing Boston accent.

“The Last Days of Mickey & Jean’’ is the seventh Richard Dresser play and the first world premiere of his work to receive a production at Merrimack Rep. Dresser is on a roll right now, with the premiere of the musical “Johnny Baseball,’’ for which he wrote the book, opening at the American Repertory Theater next month. Towers’s commitment to the playwright is admirable, but “Mickey & Jean’’ feels more like a work in progress than a finished play.

THE LAST DAYS OF MICKEY & JEAN Play by Richard Dresser

Directed by Charles Towers. Lights, Dan Kotlowitz. Costumes, Deborah Newhall. Set, Bill Clarke.

At: Merrimack Repertory

Theatre, through April 11.

Tickets: $26-$56. 978-654-4678,