By Sarah Downs
As our parents age and it is time for the next generation to take over, we are faced with a dreadful dilemma. How do we wrest control from the people who raised us without diminishing who they are? After all, they have most likely forgotten more than many of us ever learn.
The spectre of age’s consequences weaves its way through Harry Townsend’s Last Stand, a play about a man and his son trying to bridge the gap of time and distance. 85-year old Harry (Len Cariou) remains a lion even as his faculties begin to fade. A widower living in his Vermont home, rendered in perfect detail by Set Designer Lauren Halpern, Harry has been depending on the care of his daughter to keep him from accidentally leaving the oven on or breaking his neck slipping on the front step. His son Alan (Craig Bierko), has flown in from 3,000 miles away to be the baddie, giving the ultimatum we all fear we will have to utter some day: It’s no longer safe for you to live on your own.
Bierko enters at full speed, tripping over that infamous front step, ready for battle even as he craves acceptance from his father. In the comedy that ensues we learn more about a family which has always centered around Cariou’s irascible presence. He sucks the air out any room. You can just hear him in your mind’s ear, barking orders to his family from his easy chair. In a stream of leonine invective and irony ranging from the sardonic to the ferocious, Cariou blazes a trail through his character. By contrast, Bierko sputters, highlighting Alan’s ambivalence. Bierko feels a bit awkward and out of place. Of course, that is rather the point. From ill-fitting jacket to big white sneakers, he is a man not comfortable in his own skin. Costumer David C. Woolard cleverly invokes this by taking Alan literally back to short pants.
Bierko is such a talented and engaging performer, but this role doesn’t really suit him. You feel as if he doesn’t quite know what to do with his hands or his facial expression, expending a lot of energy shutting down the presence that dominated the stage in The Music Man. I’m never a fan of hiding one’s light under a bushel, so I say, release the hounds! Cariou can take it.
The play feels a bit long, taking a little while to get going. Karen Carpenter‘s direction feels a little loose, or maybe it’s that a little judicious cutting is needed. I do understand that when you have so many good zingers in a script, it is hard to sacrifice any of them.
Mythology often relies on the notion that to become a man a boy must slay his father, but is that really the only way to take your place in the world? In reaching out to his father, to break into that heart of stone, to speak and hear the truth, Alan finds his manhood by exploring his youth. It’s a new world, and to acknowledge the wisdom of your child does not erase you. As Jeff Davis’s glowing twilight through the leaves warms the set, you know there is life after Vermont, Harry, if only you’ll open your heart to it.
Harry Townsend’s Last Stand, by George Eastman, directed by Karen Carpenter; starring Len Cariou and Craig Bierko. Scenic design by Lauren Helpern, costume design by David C. Woolard, lighting design by Jeff Davis and sound design by John Gromada. Produced by Dennis Grimaldi.
Runs through April 5th at New York City Center Stage II (131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues). Monday-Tuesday at 7:30PM, Thursday at 2:30PM and 7:30PM, Friday at 7:30PM, Saturday at 2:30PM and 7:30PM and Sunday at 3:00PM. Tickets are from $59-89.00 available online at NYCityCenter.org, by calling CityTix at (212) 581-1212, or at the City Center Box Office.