Paul Osborn’s 1938 play On Borrowed Time about the love between a boy and his grandfather is a paean to salt-of-the-earth Americana, imagination, wonder, family, and all the rest. It is full of warmth, charm, endearing relationships, wholesome young love, a cute puppy, and so on. Its world is an exact replica of that constructed by contemporary dewy-eyed nostalgia for an easier time of catching frogs and climbing trees. It would make for lovely viewing on a Sunday night with the family gathered around the television as poppa dozed off in his recliner and momma knitted while the children lay prone on the floor, their delicate faces propped on their hands and elbows.
As contemporary theater, however, On Borrowed Time is a different animal entirely: a curious view into a past that seems to want to hide its triteness behind a curtain of wholesome whimsy. Running now at the Two River Theater under the direction of Joel Grey, the play is beautiful to look at (Michael Carnahan, sets) and includes two lovely performances from its leads, but one is left wondering nonetheless what to take away from this relic, other than perhaps a simplistic if charming view of a man in his later years struggling to reconcile the necessity of death with his responsibilities and loves in life. A struggle as familiar and well-worn in art as it is in life.
The play opens as Julian or “Gramps” (Robert Hogan) and the grandson he nicknamed “Pud” (Oakes Fegley) play out the affectionate relationship that seems to have been built through long hours of bonding. The boy’s father is a doctor who is often busy or away on work, and so Gramps and Pud are tightly knit. This bond becomes tighter by necessity when Pud’s mother and father are killed in a car accident, leaving Gramps and the wife he calls “Ms. Nellie” (Diane Kagan) to raise Pud.
As a more direct protector of his grandson, Julian begins to feel embattled. His wife accuses him—earnestly—of being an awful influence on Pud by using such salty language around the boy, and Pud’s aunt Demetria (Angela Reed)—a hellion according to Julian—tries first to send him to boarding school and later to adopt him. Through thick and thin, Gramps and Pud stick together.
And so when Death arrives in a shining white suit and hat, Julian quite naturally chases him off. Julian can handle readily enough the threats of his wife and Demetria, but Death, personified as the dapper and courteous Mr. Brink (Tom Nelis) is a different type of threat altogether, one with the force of inevitability. Fight as he might, Julian knows that Mr. Brink will escort him away from life and his grandson eventually—that is, unless he can forestall the inevitable.
Through a magical turn of events, Julian manages to trap Mr. Brink in a beloved backyard apple tree, a perch from which Mr. Brink cannot perform his duty in any capacity. Julian cannot die and abandon Pud, but nor can any number of folks suffering around the world for whom death would be a welcome balm. Tension builds as Julian must decide how and when to release the powers of death back into the world, all while the other people in his life increasingly doubt his psychological capacities.
The play finds its focal point in its two central characters, and this production offers two compelling performances in those roles. Young Oakes Fegley embraces heartily the role in which his acclaimed director got his theatrical beginning many years ago. Fegley’s Pud exudes an earnestness that transcends any apparent novelty of a child playing a lead role. Robert Hogan’s Julian is the clear highlight of production. Hogan finds room in what might seem like a simple loving grandfather for a broad range of nuances in the character. Especially late in the second act, as Julian’s best laid plans are becoming perilously shaky, Hogan gives us a character always ready to improvise however necessary toward his goal while never losing sight of the love for his grandson that drives the character.
Ultimately, On Borrowed Time is full of magic, whimsy, and emotional struggle painted in very broad strokes. It asks big questions, provides pat answers, and allows everybody to go home happy, or at least unchallenged. And of course sometimes art should do just that: provide a cozy framework for not too much discomfort, not too much thought, and just enough mystical satisfaction. For any resonance beyond that, however, On Borrowed Time offers little.