By Stanford Friedman
Despite overwhelming mathematical evidence to the contrary, it is hard to believe that 1993 was a quarter century ago. Yet, as the Keen Company’s charmingly romantic revival of A.R. Gurney’s Later Life demonstrates, there was indeed a time before Tinder when a man could meet a love interest at a dinner party full of strangers, and emoji-laden text messages had not yet replaced witty repartee over glasses of wine. And pointedly, it was also an era when elder male playwrights might declare that a smart woman’s choice was to pick the passionate yet physically abusive guy over the kind, if mildly depressed, divorcee.
Austin (Laurence Lau) is a successful banker, on the brink of grandfather-hood, with decidedly mixed feelings about being divorced. He likes his freedom but his friends sense he needs companionship. We find him hiding out on a large terrace overlooking Boston Harbor with the sounds of a dinner party wafting in from the wings. He is soon introduced to the lovely Ruth (Barbara Garrick). Their chemistry is not only instantaneous, but it turns out they had kissed before, in Capri no less, decades earlier, when he was in the Navy and she was on vacation. As their romantic encounter winds on, we learn the limits of their intimacy. Austin failed to pursue her back in the day due to his own impending sense of doom, a depressive state that has translated into a cautious life. Ruth, contrastingly, has gone through several husbands and is currently separated from a dangerous gambler who “looks like the Marlboro Man.” When she is confronted with the possibility of going back to him, her choice drives home Gurney’s sad message: The most terrible thing that can happen to you is to spend your life waiting for something terrible to happen to you.
Stretching and informing Austin and Ruth’s flirtation, Gurney interrupts their carrying on by having various party guests wander out to the terrace, a show-and-tell of other people’s circumstances. It is a mix of funny and poignant tales that neatly sum up the state of educated Caucasian New Englanders of the 1990’s. In a flurry of wigs and costume changes, all these characters are portrayed by just two actors, the fine Liam Craig and Jodie Markell. Among the standout personae for Mr. Craig are Duane, a computer nerd with a calculator wristwatch who reminds us of what the pre-internet, WordPerfect world was like, and Jim, a tobacco addicted, gay Brandeis professor who transforms from comical to disturbingly self-hating. Ms. Markell, meanwhile, pivots from a soft Sally, the coy party hostess, to Nancy, a loud Long Island lesbian.
But, under the gentle direction of Jonathan Silverstein, the play of course depends on the sparks and timing between Lau and Garrick. Both are up to the challenge with Lau letting Austin’s emotions ever so slowly simmer while Garrick reveals an inner beauty to Ruth’s wildness that any man would find hard to resist (Ironically, the two have worked together before, on the TV soap, One Life to Live.). The warm set design by Steven Kemp and twinkling stars and city lights from designer David Lander provide the proper bittersweet mood for this production, one of the first major stagings of a Gurney work since his death last June.
Later Life – By A.R. Gurney; directed by Jonathan Silverstein.
WITH: Liam Craig (Jim & Others), Barbara Garrick (Ruth), Laurence Lau (Austin), and Jodie Markell (Sally & Others).
Set Design: Steven Kemp, Costume Design: Jennifer Paar, Lighting Design: David Lander, Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves, Production Stage Manager: Arthur Atkinson. Keen Company at The Clurman Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, 212-947-8844, http://www.keencompany.org/later-life/. Through April 14. Running time: 80 minutes