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Later Life

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - March 14, 2018


Barbara Garrick and Laurence Lau
Photo by Carol Rosegg

A.R. Gurney is back in town; town is a more civilized place. Later Life, the prolific playwright's 1993 one-act in revival by the Keen Company at the Clurman Theatre, is a relatively minor work—less panoramic than The Dining Room, less intimate than Love Letters, less daffy than Sylvia. What it has, as is pretty much universal in Gurney, is good breeding and good manners. A halting romance of two late-middle-aged people of intellect and reserve, it keeps us guessing until the end and offers its quartet of actors ample opportunity to shine. Which these four certainly do. In fact, so varied in appearance and behavior are Liam Craig and Jodie Markell, playing everybody who is not Austin (Laurence Lau) or Ruth (Barbara Garrick), I'm still not convinced the Playbill is telling the truth about the cast size.

Steven Kemp's immaculate, nicely detailed set places us on an elegant condo terrace overlooking Boston Harbor on a starry September night. We know from Obadiah Eaves's subtle sound design that there's a party in the living room offstage left, hosted by Ruth's friend Sally. This being Boston, and this being Gurney, we also know it's populated mostly by well-behaved WASPs, some of whom dash out to the terrace for a smoke or a breath of air. But we're primarily concerned with Austin and Ruth, and so is Sally. Decades ago, Austin, now an eminently decent divorced banker, wooed Ruth on the Isle of Capri, while he was in the service and she was touring Italy with college friends. He's forgotten it, or thinks he has, but Ruth, now separated from a handsome jerk of a husband, has total recall. Something Austin told her—that he was sure something terrible was going to happen to him in the course of his life—stayed with her, and scared her off pursuing any kind of relationship with him. Now, reuniting after all this time, and being urged by her friends to stay away from her not-much-good spouse, she wants to know if his prophecy ever came true. No, he says, it didn't, but eventually she and we realize that in a way it did: Austin stayed so proper, so polite, so buttoned-up that life passed him by. Can either of them change their destiny at this late date, or are the choices they made long ago doomed to force them into a safe, predictable existence?

I'm not telling. Suffice it to say that, this being Gurney, Austin and Ruth talk in complete, literate sentences, and while we're aware that it's well-formed stage dialogue, dangerously close to repartee, we get quite actively involved in their dilemma and root for somebody to make a move: Kiss him, you fool. Lau is a dignified, gentlemanly Austin, playing things close to the vest as this guarded Republican banker would, and Garrick shades Ruth with understated hints of her character's tumultuous, frequently sad past. Meanwhile, Craig and Markell are kept busy changing outfits (Jennifer Paar's) and wigs and hairstyles (Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas's), stepping in and out of characterizations as quickly as they change clothes. He's an unpleasant chain-smoking professor, a computer nerd (and this being 1993, prepare to dial back to talk of WordPerfect and the Intel 486 and MS-DOS 2.0), and Austin's sympathetic best friend, among others; she's an intrusive foodie, a friendly-stupid Atlanta housewife newly negotiating Boston, and Ruth's best friend, a Boston Symphony violinist trying to steer Ruth away from her husband. They're in what amount to self-contained sketches, this bunch, and while they do little to affect the central outcome, under Jonathan Silverstein's polished direction, they're good company.

They're there, I think, to provide counterpoint to Austin and Ruth, and to demonstrate the consequences of decisions made earlier in life. This being Gurneyland, they're all articulate and financially secure, and they afford Craig and Markell marvelous chances to show off their versatility. At the center, though, are Austin and Ruth, accomplished but unfulfilled souls who have proven thus far unable to break free of the strictures they've set up for themselves. They're a touching twosome, and the Keen Company has presented them admirably in this 25th anniversary production of a work that shows even lesser Gurney is well worth a visit. He was such an eloquent spokesman for white WASPs of means, a group occupying less and less stage time these days. Ruth speaks in passing of "this world that is falling apart." Heaven knows what she'd make of it now.


Later Life
Through April 14
Theatre Row at The Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge


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