Review: The Road Not Taken Via Gurney In ‘Later Life’ at Keen Company
By Diana Mott, Contributing Writer, March 15, 2018
In Later Life, we are solidly in A.R. Gurney territory: waspy, and well-heeled. This 80 minute play without intermission takes place somewhere in the 1990s on a tony terrace overlooking Boston Harbor. The set (Steven Kemp) is very appealing, with sparkling lights and expensive outdoor furniture on a spacious terrace, the sound of foghorns and seagulls placing us firmly in wealthy Boston. It’s sweater weather on the terrace, in my experience, hardly a deterrent for any party with a lovely outdoor space, but enough references are made about the weather to keep most of the revelers indoors while making it blatantly clear that the players are all in the “autumn” of their lives.
Sally (Jodie Markell) the widowed hostess, is determined to set up newly divorced Austin (Laurence Lau) with recently separated Ruth (Barbara Garrick). It seems the couple have a mysterious connection in the distant past that Ruth remembers and Austin does not, at “a moment in our lives when we were both. . .what? Relative free and clear.” The first 15 minutes of Ruth and Austin’s often interrupted dialogue is Austin trying to guess where and when they met. For the audience, it is also about why he doesn’t remember and she does.
It turns out that Austin rejected an opportunity for an assingnation with a beautiful, available young Ruth while they were both in Italy, he as a serviceman, and she, a young tourist traveling with a group of friends. Ruth reminds him that he had revealed to her that he had a premonition that something terrible was going to happen in his life. He told her he was just waiting for it to happen and he liked her too much to “drag her into it.”
(It is at this point that I wanted them to jump off the terrace and into Boston Harbor.)
Turns out, Ruth is the one who had tragedy in her life. Her daughter died of leukemia and her third and fourth husband (she married him twice) is a scoundrel who spends her money gambling and may even physically abuse her. Austin on the other hand is a stereotype of Boston Brahminhood: Groton, Harvard, a sucessful career in banking, marriage to the boss’s daughter, two grown children, “both launched. Both doing well. Can’t complain at all.” Even his divorce is a relatively painless affair, “the best thing to happen in a long time.” At first glance, the only terrible thing that happened to Austin is that he is on Prozac for some vague middle-aged crisis that didn’t even originate with his own self-searching. “My kids conned me into it…I went (to a psychiatrist) so I wouldn’t hurt their feelings.”
Much of Ruth and Austin’s backstories are revealed through encounters with various guests who wander on and off the terrace throughout the play. These secondary characters are inhabited with brio and wit by Jodie Markell and Liam Craig, even if some of them as written are a bit dog-eared and thematic: the computer geek, the newly transplanted couple from the South, the prematurely retired Brandeis professor who channels his philosophical disquiet into an effort to quit smoking, the retired couple who can’t agree on their retirement.
In the end, Ruth realizes that the foreboding of tragedy by a young Austin just might be on the nose. A passive, unimaginative life is terrible indeed.
Later Life, presented by Keen Company at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street through April 14. Written by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Jonathan Silverstein; set design by Steven Kemp; costume design by Jennifer Paar; lighting design by David Lander. Cast: Liam Craig, Barbara Garrick, Laurence Lau, and Jodie Marshall.
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Cover: (l. to r.) Barbara Garrick and Laurence Lau in ‘Later Life;’ photo: Carol Rosegg.