“Later Life” Theater Review by Andrea Santo Felcone

The premise of renowned playwright A. R. Gurney’s play, “Later Life” is intriguing: a middle-aged man and woman meet at a cocktail party and ponder beginning a relationship that had eluded them–30 years prior. Romantic missed connections, except this time, in later life, there is the hope of a new beginning, a second chance.

Later Life Play

Barbara Garrick and Laurence Lau. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

The intrigue grows when you discover that Gurney took the premise for his play from a short story by Henry James, “The Beast in the Jungle,” where the male protagonist in that story thinks some awful tragedy is about to befall him, “lying in wait, like a beast in the jungle.” The same is true for Gurney’s male lead, a man named Austin. This is why Austin could not follow through on his initial attraction for Ruth, years ago; he was waiting for something terrible to happen to him—and in that waiting, may have missed out on something wonderful.

Austin, the civil and stayed Bostonian, is polite almost to a fault. In present day, he is a divorced banker standing out on the patio of a party overlooking Boston Harbor–cornered by the party hostess who is playing matchmaker. She has discovered that Ruth (a friend of hers) remembers meeting Austin about 30 years ago, on the romantic island of Capri, when Ruth was vacationing with friends, and Austin was in the Navy. Ruth and Austin were two ships passing in the night, at that time, but now, under the Boston stars, in front of another body of water, fate is giving them a second chance.

Ruth is very curious to reconnect with Austin to see if his premonition of his life ever came to pass. One wonders if Austin was going to be a fully neurotic character (of a Woody Allen-type), but that is not Austin, at least not played by Laurence Lau (who you may remember as Greg from “All My Children”). There is no detailed backstory to explain why Austin would have gone through life fearing “the other shoe may drop”. Lau plays Austin in a mostly flat way that generally suits him, but doesn’t explain why Ruth would be so intrigued. Apparently, nothing has happened to Austin, not one thing–his entire life. (Unless you count his divorce, although he seems pretty happy about that circumstance.) The real tragedy is that his life is–a life not lived–and even in later life, we are unsure if he is willing to risk change, or a new relationship, or anything at all.

Ruth, (played in a gritty, endearing way by Barbara Garrick), has plenty of reason to share this philosophy, she has an abusive husband (they are separated), has lost a child, and also has two other divorces under her belt. Yet, Ruth does not share Austin’s view of the world. Why she is drawn to him is a bit of a mystery, except perhaps that he has retained his boyish good looks.

Swirling about Austin and Ruth are a bevy of different characters (all of them played by just two actors—Liam Craig and Jodie Markell). These other party-goers interrupt Austin and Ruth’s reunion, and provide comic relief and steal a fair share of the limelight and most of Gurney’s witty dialogue. They appear to be there as reminders that later life can be lived differently–risks can be taken, old patterns can be extinguished, or at least one can attempt change. The multiple characters are portrayed well by Craig and Markell and to their credit you may find yourself surprised at final bow when only four actors grace the stage.

Later Life Play

Barbara Garrick, Jodie Markell, Liam Craig. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

This is the 25th anniversary production of the play, and as such, some of the dialogue feels dated. A computer-obsessed character is about to go shopping at RadioShack for his wife’s birthday; Ruth’s almost ex-husband is referred to as “the Marlboro Man,” yet there is more than enough wit in the play to carry one past these moments. It is troubling that Ruth is considering a return to her almost ex-husband, who has been known to beat her. The fact that Ruth is in an abusive relationship is almost glossed over, as the focus is on whether or not Austin can risk anything. We come to realize, Ruth for however exuberant she is, cannot risk change either, especially if she is willing to go back to her abusive partner. (One imagines this storyline would be handled differently in today’s day and age.)

Tucked into the cozy setting that is The Clurman Theatre (part of Theatre Row on 42nd street between 9th and 10th avenues) staring at the delightful set (designed by Steven Kemp, with lighting by David Lander) with the hope for an interesting storyline, the desire for something dramatic to happen was strong. On the whole, though, this is a gentle play, which shares the same qualities as its leading man: a civility, a quietness.

Lau and Garrick share a believable chemistry, so much so, that you hope they will find their way to one another (despite the fact that a reunion wouldn’t seem long-lived). The central question that “Later Life” stirs up is interesting to ponder: do you consider mid-life a time of second chances; or do you believe it is too late to change your life once over 50? If you are looking for a quiet production that leaves you thinking, this play entertains while doing just that. “Later Life” serves as a gentle reminder to live life more fully, especially mid-life, before any of life’s wonderful opportunities disappear.

Later Life Play

Barbara Garrick, Laurence Lau. Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

“Later Life” runs for 90 minutes (no intermission) and is playing until April 14 at The Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, New York City.

Tickets can be purchased online at www.telecharge.com or by calling (212) 239-6200.

“Later Life” by A.R. Gurney, presented by Keen Company

Starring: Liam Craig, Barbara Garrick, Laurence Lau, Jodie Markell

Steven Kemp, Set Design

Jennifer Paar, Costume Design

David Lander, Lighting Design

Obadiah Eaves, Sound Design

Directed by Jonathan Silverstein

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