Barbara Garrick and Laurence Lau in Keen Company’s ‘Later Life.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Does A.R. Gurney’s 1993 Later Life, a romantic comedy about second chances, itself deserve a second chance—a later life in an Off-Broadway revival? If the bland showing it’s currently receiving under Jonathan Silverstein’s direction for the respected Keen Company is any indication, you may have doubts.
Originally produced by Playwrights Horizons and soon after given an independent Off-Broadway production, the play (one of the Ten Best of 1992-1993) is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Even at that relatively young age, it seems so dated that its frequent topical references are almost quaint.
Later Life, which exemplifies the late playwright’s penchant for appreciatively satirical views of WASP society, depicts a potential romance between two attractive, middle-aged people, the Boston-bred, Groton- and Harvard-educated Austin (Laurence Lau), divorced, and the four-times married, Midwesterner Ruth (Barbara Garrick), currently separated. Each will soon ponder the possibilities of starting anew with someone else at this midlife crossroads.
The perfectly romantic setting for their brief encounter is a tastefully appointed apartment terrace overlooking Boston Harbor (appealingly designed by Steven Kemp); the time is a lovely night (made lovelier by David Lander’s lighting) early in the Clinton era; and the occasion is a cocktail party given by the sprightly hostess, Sally, who brings the pair together.
But Ruth and Austin are not entirely strangers; in contrast to her razor-sharp memory on which even their once-upon-a-time conversations are engraved, he needs prodding before he recognizes her. It’s been 30 years, after all, since their original encounter on Capri, when he was a naval officer and she a vacationing coed from the University of Southern Illinois. You can almost hear the strains of “The Second Time Around” as they sip, chat, and size each other up.
Their conversation recalls Austin’s problem of waiting all his life for something terrible to happen to him, which is why he turned down the chance to be with her. While he doesn’t think that terrible thing has happened to him yet, Ruth herself has a more tragic story. We gradually learn the principal details of each’s life, including weaknesses belied by their generally confident personas. He, for example, is in analysis; her husband is abusive.
Their mutual feelings draw them ever closer until a phone call arrives that puts everything on the line, forcing each to make a fateful choice. Before the resolution is reached, though, Gurney plants a bit of foreshadowing that lets you see it coming like a Mack truck.
Before then, however, their tête-à-tête is continually interrupted by a string of eccentric party guests, used by Gurney to pad out the play’s 90 minutes by extracting additional exposition about his leading characters. Austin’s Brahmin upbringing has made him so congenitally polite he, like us, can do little but grin and bear these garrulous intruders.
Making their intrusions even more egregious is Gurney’s device of having them played by the same two actors (Jodi Markell and Liam Craig) in a widely disparate string of accents, wigs (well-coiffed by Dave Bova and J. Jared Jonas), and costumes (nicely conceived by Jennifer Paar).
Thus we get not only Sally but Jim, a retired philosophy professor trying to give up smoking; Marion and Roy, a couple considering moving to warmer climes; Duane, a computer nerd gabbling about an IBM compatible with a 486 Intel processor; the nosy Nancy, who lost her friend among the crowd inside; the Southern-accented Ted and Esther, who recently moved to Boston; the hail-fellow-well-met Walt, singing Austin’s praises as a friend and squash player; and Ruth’s music-loving acquaintance, Judith, “involved with a French horn.”
Try as they may, though, Markell and Craig lack the chameleonic, comedic virtuosity to pull off the stunt (Carole Shelley and Anthony Heald were the original performers). Without more notable talents in these roles, the audience becomes distracted by the efforts of the actors and not the contributions of the characters. The play, meanwhile, slowly sinks to the bottom of Boston Harbor.
Lau and Garrick make suitable romantic leads of a certain age. His Austin, though, for all the praise showered on him by Walt, is too colorlessly conservative to hold our interest, while Ruth seems more worldly and self-aware than her character’s choices warrant.
Still, with Garrick’s doll-like features, knowing warmth, and distinctive voice, if I had to choose one reason for this play’s later life, it would be her.
Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through April 14
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).