A secret can be devastating, especially in a marriage.

“Halpern & Johnson,” a drama that opens this week at Portland Stage Company, explores the idea of emotional infidelity. The topic seems particularly appropriate in this age of Facebook, when many friendships blossom and are nurtured without the knowledge or consent of a spouse.

“Halpern & Johnson,” written by playwright Lionel Goldstein, tells the story of two strangers, Joseph Halpern and Dennis Johnson. They meet at the grave of Halpern’s wife, Florence, who has just died. He is mourning her loss when Johnson arrives with a bunch of flowers to leave at the grave.

As the men talk, Halpern learns that Johnson had a relationship with his wife before he married her. Not only that, Florence and this stranger maintained an active friendship — without any hanky-panky, Johnson assures Halpern — throughout a half-century of marriage.

They met for lunch several times a year, and as Florence became sick, she asked for Johnson’s assurance that he would attend her funeral. His presence at the cemetery is the fulfilment of that pledge.

Halpern is devastated. He’s just lost his wife, and now has to reconcile her secret life.

Johnson is devastated, too. He tells Halpern that he and Florence were quite an item before she married, and the only reason she didn’t marry him was because of religious differences — she was Jewish and he was Catholic.

Not only does Johnson have to deal with the loss of his closest friend, he has lived all these years knowing that his true love was with another man.

Other secrets are revealed, and anger flares. In the play, we see these two men work through their conflict over the course of a year.

As the drama unfolds, the play becomes a match between these two older gentleman. They spar and spat, and parry back and forth as they trade hurt and jealousies. Eventually, they form a friendship based on their shared memories of Florence.

Goldstein initially wrote the play as a 1983 made-for-TV movie starring Laurence Olivier and Jackie Gleason. He adapted it for the stage in 1995.

The Portland Stage production stars two veteran actors — Jonathan McMurtry as Johnson and Robert Grossman as Halpern. McMurtry was last seen at Portland Stage as Judge Biddle in “Trying,” while Grossman is making his Portland Stage debut. David Ellenstein directs.

The actors played these same roles six years ago at North Coast Repertory Theatre in California, where McMurtry lives.

“A lot of people can identify with what love is, and how two people can love the same woman,” said McMurtry. “The complicated thing is trying to explain it.”

Grossman, who lives in Texas, compared this play to the Samuel Beckett classic “Waiting for Godot.”

“These two guys meet in this kind of suspended place,” he said. “Neither of them have all that much time left to live. They are old men, and everything in the preceding 50 years of their lives has to resolved.”

That is especially true for Halpern, who comes late to the secret. In a matter of hours and during the time of deepest need, he has to deal with questions that he never imagined.

From an actor’s perspective, “Halpern & Johnson” presents unique challenges. There are a lot of words, and much of the texture of the play lies in things unsaid. The challenge both actors face is giving life to Florence, who never appears on stage but is a major presence throughout the show.

“It requires a lot of concentration, and the pressure never lets up,” McMurtry said. “It intensifies as more information is revealed.

“These men have stronger conflicts to deal with, but they are held in and held back by the situation and their ages.”

The show concludes one year after the burial, when both men gather at the cemetery where they first met. By play’s end, the audience feels sympathy for both men. They have both suffered a loss, and both have managed to make some sense of the situation and find common ground.

This is the third time Ellenstein has directed “Halpern & Johnson.” It is his first experience at Portland Stage.

He has worked with both actors many times before, and reveres their skills individually and collectively. As director, his job is simply to create an environment where they can do their best work, and guide them along.

Their experience takes care of the rest, he said.

“If you counted up the number of plays these guys have done, you’re probably looking at 600 or 700 plays between them, maybe more. They have 100 years of experience between them.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:
[email protected]