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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Somehow, what stuck most clearly to my memory was the savvy way the prolific Mr. Gurney, best known as our chronicler of WASP culture, managed to populate his play with a dozen characters, and make it work most effectively with just four actors— not just to facilitate economic casting and rev up the humor, but to use these secondary characters to deepen and enhance the themes with which the main characters grapple.
As he did with two of his most popular plays, Love Letters and Sylvia, Mr. Gurney created Austin and Ruth, a pair of middle-aged upper-middle class characters who find themselves reliving their younger lives. He reunites them at a cocktail party thrown by Ruth's friend, a violinist, at her apartment facing Boston Harbor. Their conversational trip down memory lane takes them back to their long-ago aborted romance when he was a young naval officer and she a Midwestern college student on a trip abroad.
In the years since their one enchanted but go-nowhere romantic evening on the Isle of Capri, Austin's life has been true to his Boston Brahmin roots (a career in banking and marriage to another elite Bostonian). Life for the less risk-averse Ruth who's visiting Boston, life has been less stable. The well-mannered, charming Austin is hardly suffering from memory loss, he has no recollection of the prior meeting, so that Ruth has to tease him into remembering.
As we watch Austin gradually and quite gladly also recall the past, this initially feels like a Noel Cowardesque romantic comedy. But as more personal history details surface so do hints of something darker — for young Austin this was the foreboding shadow of his fearful conviction that he was doomed to experience an unavoidable catastrophe. Actually the foreboding which caused Austin to end the romance before it began was inspired by "The Beast in the Jungle," a novella by Henry James (still available in various formats, including a free Kindle edition). However, except for that initial plot set-up involving Austin's romance-killing foreboding, Later Life is pure Gurney in its time, setting and character development.
While Later Life hasn't been as frequently revived as Love Letters and Sylvia (both of which Mr.Gurney, who died last year, still saw produced on Broadway), the Keen Company's revival provides a welcome opportunity to meet Ruth and Austin and all those other party guests who keep interrupting their finally grabbing the chance to get together before it's too late.
Jonathan Silverstein the Keen's and this production's director and set designer Steven Kemp have created a lovely looking revival at the the company's home on Theatre Row. It once again showcases Mr. Gurney's skill at creating a play that reveals something deeper and sadder beneath its light-hearted and comic surface. Since the play runs just 80 minutes it doesn't take long to see that the metaphoric "beast" that made Austin opt for a safe, if emotionally unadventurous and unsatisfying life, instead showed up in Ruth's.
Though Ruth asked her friend to set up this get-together with Austin with hopes for a happier later life, there are also hints that she's as addicted to risky choices as that compulsive smoker is to cigarettes. Nor is Austin quite the poster boy of happy adjustment to middle age he appears to be. While he claims to be more than happy about being a bachelor again (his very proper wife deal with her own midlife crisis by leaving him for a younger man), his children sensed enough tension to gift him with several visits to see a psychiatrist. And while he tells Ruth that psychiatry is strictly for the younger generation that's "so in touch with their psyches that they strum them like guitars," he admits that he's still taking the Prozac prescribed by the the psychiatrist. The various interrupters also make it clear that pain and inner turmoil are part of the overall fare at this party.
Given that Ruth and Austin are the play's pivotal characters, Barbara Garrick and Laurence Lau are the nominal stars. But while both actors ably dig into the sadness beneath their playful getting reacquainted interchanges, it's Liam Craig and Jodie Markell who often steal the show with their funny and theme-supportng multiple portraits of misery. The actors are immeasurably helped in individualizing their characters by Jennifer Paar's costumes and the hairdos by Dave Bova and Jared Janas.
Occasionally Later Life, like other Gurney plays, injects a few too many lines that nudge the audience into awareness of the feelings behind the civilized masks. And though the play's is likely to appeal most to audiences at the same stage of life as Austin and Ruth, that's not to say that younger viewers will be left unmoved by Austin and Ruth's attempt to grab the elusive gold ring of life's merry-go-round.
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Later Life by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein
Cast: Liam Craig, Barbara Garrick, Laurence Lau, and Jodie Markell
Costumes: Jennifer Paar
Lighting: David Lander
Sound: Obadiah Eaves
Running Time: 90 minutes (including intermission)
Keen Company at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row www.keencompany.org
From 2/27/18; opening 3/14/18; closing 4/14/18
Tuesday through Thursday evenings at 7pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm; and Sunday matinees at 3pm.
Tickets are $65 with premium tickets $80, for all performances except Tuesday evenings which will be just $20 online or at the box office
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/11 press preview
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