How do you distill love? Books, TV shows and movies for time immemorial have attempted this feat, and yet, and yet, and yet, I didn’t expect to find one of its most perfect — at least in my eyes — distillations in a theater in Princeton, New Jersey.
When I found out that Kathryn Grody and Mandy Patinkin were going to put on a Valentine’s Day show in my new home state, it felt like bashert. My husband, aware that the two were my favorite pandemic comfort power couple, insisted on buying us tickets. With a babysitter booked and my girliest puff sleeves dress on, we had perhaps the most romantic Valentine’s Day ever (to be fair, that’s not a hard feat, because I’m not sure if we’ve ever really celebrated Valentine’s Day as a couple before?).
Every one of the hundreds of people in attendance of this performance was taking a bit of a gamble, including the people on stage. While Patinkin is on tour right now, this was not a musical show of the kind he has been doing for over four decades. Instead, it was an interview Patinkin and his wife, Grody, both in their 70s, moderated by their 36-year-old son, Gideon — who made sure to introduce his mother, an actress and playwright, with her many achievements and accolades, only to title his father as “her husband Mandy.”
Since 2020, Gideon has been our intrepid captain and navigator in the sometimes rough waters of his parents and their love. In viral videos he began posting on Patinkin’s social media channels, he shared improvised interviews with his parents that offered a raw glimpse into how these two get along — the push and pull of kvelling and kvetching.
The experiment, I’m happy to report, was a success, despite the fact that a woman in a row behind us believed that she too was in conversation with Patinkin and Grody, sharing her loud commentary with us all. I can’t blame her (OK I can blame her a little), there was a sense of intimacy and realness on stage that made us all feel like we were a part of their story, much like the couple’s social media videos — their home left in its pleasant clutter, much like their emotions and thoughts.
That evening, Grody helped illuminate why we love them so much. Yes, they feel parental, but they also offer a wonderful and rare representation of a couple in their 70s — one that makes you feel excited about getting older.
Gideon, who his parents acknowledge helped save them and their relationship through the pandemic, knows just how to needle and guide his parents in a way that feels most funny — and most authentic. He draws genuine emotion out of them better than any seasoned Hollywood director might, but also laughter, levity, sometimes irritation (when he reads an audience Q&A note that compares Mandy to Maury Povich, the actor gets incensed and curses, only to then ask, “Who is Maury Povich?”).
The evening was also imbued with a kind of casual Yiddishkeit. Patinkin talked about how fixing their relationship in times of crisis — it was revealed that the couple had gone through two periods of separation during their marriage — made him think about tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of fixing the world, and how it felt like he was fixing their world, their microcosmos. Grody talked about her “mishegas” of not wanting to have their wedding filmed. Patinkin lovingly reminisced about Shakespeare in the Park founder Joseph Papp — the man who signed their ketubah, Jewish wedding contract, and shared his father’s version of the sex talk. Gideon prepared a montage of animal mating rituals that ended with a very enticing shot of a bagel, and with him asserting that “lox and bagel” is “a human mating ritual.”
There were also parenting lessons to be gleaned. “Kids forgive you for a lot because you’re learning on the job,” Grody sagaciously counseled. She also urged parents to “teach your sons to be affectionate,” a lesson that, as a fellow mother of two (cuddly!) sons, I was personally touched by. And they shared the important parenting lesson they learned as adults, when their son asked to record them as the world was falling apart all around us: “When your kids who you love ask you to do something, say yes.”
Gideon also did something most kids could never be coerced to do for any amount of money: to ask their parents about sex. Grody apparently yells “boring!” at the TV whenever a raunchy scene comes on, which I personally would appreciate more than watching a sex scene in awkward silence together with my parents. Patinkin also recalled that when he and Grody first started going out, he asked for her patience and grace in their lovemaking by explaining that, “I’ve never made love with anyone I really love before.”
The night’s most important lessons, though, were about love. There were quiet ones, like how Patinkin reached for Grody’s hand often on stage. Or the way they danced together in a segment Gideon titled “Husband and Wife Put Hand on Face and Stare Into Soul” — a practice all couples could surely benefit from.
And there were louder ones, too. “If you love somebody, tell them over and over until you’re sick of it,” Patinkin advised. He shared that watching Grody “hold our first grandson” was “romantic, off the charts.” And that to “just sit in the room and do nothing together is heaven.” He also professed that, “If love is some kind of insanity, then I am a crazy motherfucker.”
The highlight of the show came at the end. An ecstatic Gideon urged his parents to stand up and look up at the screen, where a video of them dancing the hora on their wedding day appeared.
The video was not one the couple had ever seen before — their wedding day was never officially recorded, and the footage was found by a relative. Patinkin appeared, as they say in Yiddish, verklempt. Through tearful eyes, he said, “It all goes by so fast,” then added, “That’s what old people say.”
“What is love?” the immortal Haddaway song asks. Love is messy and infuriating. Love is steady and strong. Love is finding laughter in the most irritating of experiences — lovingly squeezing your partner’s hand in commiseration as the woman seated behind you will just not shut up. It’s a bagel and lox hand-delivered after you’ve given birth to your sons. It’s swaying and looking into each other’s soul. It is the heaven of sitting together, in silence, or among a crowd, hearing your husband holding in his emotions as a 70-year-old genius of stage and screen bawls at his own wedding video.
And on Valentine’s Day of 2023, with some help from their oh-so-loving son, Grody and Patinkin showed us love in all its messy, naked (metaphorically!), beautiful glory — and made me believe in it more than ever before.