By Eric Uhlfelder
A play about second chances at love sounds full of potential, especially when dealing with middle-aged folks who suffered a missed opportunity three decades earlier.
The Keen Company’s revival of A.R. Gurney’s Later Life, which premiered in 1993, is a solid production, featuring screwball interludes by two of the play’s four cast members, who are called upon to play multiple bit characters who seem determined to undermine the couple’s ability to couple.
Several such interruptions highlight the evening, especially the various characters played by Liam Craig, ranging from a self-absorbed college professor, a computer geek, Austin’s best friend, to a transplanted southern husband thrilled to be up north.
The couple—Austin (deftly played by Laurence Lau) and Ruth (played with a realistically strange mixture of awareness and flightiness by Barbara Garrick)—are brought together by the host (Jodie Markell) at a posh Boston Harbor high-rise party set on a balcony with glorious views. The skyline is delicately outlined by variegated rows of lights, with a constellation illuminated in the same manner.
A prolific US writer, Mr. Gurney’s delighted in crafting such “Drawing Room” tales. Upon his passing last year, the New York Times’ tribute described his works’ focus: “on the quirks and barely concealed anxieties of the privileged class…[relying] on astute observations, leavened with tart humor, and using misunderstandings, either accidental or willful, as fuel for drama.”
Later Life holds promise with a haunting motif, originally issued by Austin, when we learn why he couldn’t proceed with the affair while on leave as a naval seaman so many years ago: He feared something terrible was going to happen to him. A noble man, a soldier aware of his mortality empathic toward a woman he cared for, or maybe just a bizarre excuse to avoid intimacy?
The problem is the playwright doesn’t do much with this potent portent. And where past reviews of previous productions calls out a defect in Austin’s character, this iteration shows a decent, well-mannered man who has made his way in life knowing what he does and does not want.
At the heart of the play: the challenges we all face in finding a true mate. This is made only harder the further on in life we find ourselves as we are more set in our ways with experiences that help us sidestep landmines. At the same time, the play provokes us to wonder with all that knowledge, are we sometimes blind to happiness when it could be standing right in front of us?
Another problem with this 80 minute one-act production is all the slapstick interruptions don’t allow the two main characters to find out whether they are right for each other. Further annoyance: the scatterbrain host, who puts the couple together, passes on a phone call to Ruth that even two active brain cells would have sufficiently clued her to say: “Can I take a message?” Such contrivances unfortunately undermine the play’s rich potential.
Not all plays need to be Shakespearean in depth and complexity. Watching a slice of life can be a pleasant way to spend an evening. But in the case of Later Life, the result teases rather than provokes about what could’ve been…and what theater-goers could’ve taken away from this well-acted, staged, and choreographed production.
Later Life runs through April 14th at The Clurman Theatre, Theatre Row at 410 West 42nd Street.