The amazing thing about the love story of Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir is that it’s so contemporary. In most ways 1949 was a million years ago, with World War II a fresh memory instead of a prettified myth, drug addiction a secret instead of a government crusade, and a woman’s place in the home, separate and unequal. It’s a measure of just how long ago it was that in those days every literate American knew the work of Algren, winner of the first National Book Award for The Man With the Golden Arm, while few had heard of de Beauvoir, author of the groundbreaking feminist work The Second Sex and longtime companion/amanuensis of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Now it’s pretty much the reverse.

But here’s a story from those long-ago days about a man and a woman who fall in love as equals and about their inability to stay in love that way. He can’t imagine giving up his life for her but can’t understand why she won’t give up her life for him. Having found an accomplished soul mate, he tries to take her home and domesticate her–and though she can be domesticated, she isn’t satisfied to stay that way. Their love won’t survive this conflict or the power inequities that caused it. There could be a topic that resonates more with contemporary straight women, but I can’t think what it might be.

John Susman’s Nelson & Simone, given its world premiere by Live Bait Theater, brings out the timeliness of the story without compromising its period feel. That’s because director Richard Cotovsky clearly understands that the play’s focus is neither time nor place but the ongoing conflict, experienced largely by women, between love and self. It’s conventionally reported that de Beauvoir, who loved Algren so much she was buried wearing a ring he’d won for her in a poker game, refused to leave Paris to live with him in Chicago because she was unable to leave Sartre. (This tiresome “torn between two lovers” narrative ignores the fact that de Beauvoir and Sartre hadn’t been lovers for many years.) Susman’s text and Rebecca Covey’s strong performance make clear that what de Beauvoir is unable to leave is her life–represented perhaps by Sartre, but hardly limited to him.

It’s remarkable that right in the middle of a love affair and with no support from the wider culture, de Beauvoir, who had no small romantic streak of her own (“I will always be your wife”), could still see that if she traded her life for love she would be shortchanged. At a time when most people considered women’s rights achieved and settled–“You can vote and own property; what more do you want?”–she could recognize the inequality of women in personal relationships and name it as a problem not just for individuals but for society. That must be the definition of a genius: the person who can see what’s right in front of all of us.

The world is always too much with these lovers, as shown by their repetition of the line “I want to be with you.” Between Algren (the splendidly world-weary Gary Houston) and de Beauvoir, this tender sentiment is nearly always a complaint. She says it in Chicago when he takes her to yet another shooting gallery to watch the junkies; he says it in France when she drags him off to see the sights. Each wants the other, but only divorced from the other’s life; they never can work out a way to be together in the world. When they say, “I don’t want to share you with other people or places,” it becomes obvious that one of them has to choose between life and love–and that neither can.

Covey is the heart and soul of this spare, elegant three-character piece. Every nuance of de Beauvoir’s struggle is reflected on her face, and she manages to compass immense loss without ever becoming a victim. She even sustains a thick French accent without letting it degenerate into caricature, instead using it to remind the audience of the gulf between her and the lover who calls her “Frenchy” and never learns her language. Likewise, Houston gives a subtle, layered performance, in which a cynical face fails to conceal monumentally disappointed hopes. His Algren is the accidental bully, uncomprehending and then enraged as the woman who loves and honors him fails to obey him. Houston is particularly compelling as Algren deteriorates, watching both fame and de Beauvoir slip away. Fred Wellisch does wonderfully in the relatively thankless role of Sartre, especially in the scene where the “no English” philosopher and the “no French” Algren learn to communicate using the universal language: alcohol, Coca-Cola, and lines from American movies.

Susman makes such good use of his characters’ words that he probably won’t get enough credit for his own, but from one source or other, there are plenty of memorable lines. When they travel to see the Mexican pyramids, Algren squelches de Beauvoir’s enthusiasm by saying, “It’s beautiful and fascinating if you’ve never worked out in the hot sun for a living–but I have.” When he proposes, she says she’ll be thrilled to be his wife–“But do we have to get married?” And it’s particularly admirable that Susman handles de Beauvoir’s ascent and Algren’s simultaneous descent without turning the piece into a transatlantic A Star Is Born.

I once saw a self-help book whose conceit was that everything goes wrong between lovers once the Relation Ship sails into their lives. The ship requires so much maintenance–bailing out, scraping off barnacles–and so much navigation to keep it off the rocks that there’s not much time left for loving. Nelson & Simone is about an affair that sank for lack of a seaworthy Relation Ship and about the cost of shipbuilding in human life.

If I called Nelson & Simone an archetypal feminist romance, audiences might run screaming in the other direction. So I’ll put it this way: if your life has ever been in one place while your lover was someplace else–literally or metaphorically–see this show.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.