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Theatre in Review: Later Life (Keen Company/Theatre Row)

Barbara Garrick, Laurence Lau. Photo: Carol Rosegg

In A. R. Gurney's vast library of comedies, Later Life is an especially slippery property. It's a seemingly breezy tale, with sketch-comedy underpinnings, about a chance meeting between almost-lovers from long ago; at its heart, however, it is the revelation of one man's locked-up heart. It's a cool, expertly mixed cocktail, spiked with an extra dose of bitters, and surely only Gurney could have pulled it off.

We are on the terrace of an apartment overlooking Boston Harbor, where, offstage, a party is in full swing. Austin, a handsome, amiable banker in his middle years, has been lured outside by Sally, his hostess, to meet Ruth, a fetching and faintly mysterious presence, who clearly knows more about Austin than she is initially willing to say. Ruth has been brought to the affair by her friend, and, having spied Austin across a crowded room, has requested this interview. Sally, who has advanced matchmaking tendencies, feels certain that romance is in the air. Austin is frankly baffled at the ladies' social machinations, and, at first, Ruth's teasing, elliptical manner does little to clear things up.

Gradually, the truth comes out: The two had met many years earlier, on Capri, when Austin was in the Navy and Ruth was a student. On that fateful day, they fell away from their friends and went off together, making a connection and sharing truths in the way that total strangers sometimes do. Indeed, Austin may have bared something essential about himself. As Ruth recalls, "You said that you were sure that sooner or later something awful was going to descend on you and ruin your life forever." Austin, who has lived the sort of thoroughly conventional Boston life once depicted in the novels of John P. Marquand, is stunned to hear that he ever spoke such words to anyone, let alone a girl he had just met. Was his creeping fear -- the sense that his life was too fortunate and that a reckoning was in store, indeed was almost demanded by the universe -- the reason that their day ended with only a kiss and farewell, or was Austin, ever the gentleman, simply doing the expected thing? One wonders why Ruth recalls their encounter down to the last detail and why the memory must be extracted so slowly and painfully from Austin.

At first glance, Austin and Ruth resemble Andrew and Melissa, the star-crossed duo at the heart of Gurney's Love Letters: Always the dutiful one, Austin has followed paths that were paved for him since birth, while Ruth has swapped out one life for another, causing chaos in her fruitless search for satisfaction. But at the heart of Later Life is a more persistent sense of loss than anything in Love Letters. Behind his pleasant, polished fa├žade, Austin is profoundly alone, afflicted with an anxiety he can't quite name. Ruth has indulged her reckless streak, running through a series of husbands, some of whom have treated her badly; otherwise, she has little else to show for herself. As they once again fall into an instant intimacy, a painful question hangs over them: Had that long-past day gone differently, would they have found themselves as they are now, lost -- as Dante would put it -- in the middle of the journey of their lives? Had they been granted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which they threw away? (If this situation seems familiar, it is; Gurney acknowledged that Later Life is suggested by Henry James' "The Beast in the Jungle.")

This elegantly conceived dance of flirtation and discovery is interrupted by a barrage of interlopers from Sally's guest list, all of them eager to unburden themselves to the nonplussed Austin and Ruth. In one of Gurney's brightest inventions, all are played by a single pair of actors, in this case, Jodie Markell and Liam Craig. Craig amuses as a writer and academic with a train-wreck personal life and a love-hate relationship with cigarettes, and as a computer fanatic whose wife doesn't understand him. (Written in 1993, the script, with its references to Bill Clinton, Jesse Helms, and modems, is dated, but charmingly so.) Markell is delightful as the smiling, pushy Sally -- "I'm setting the stage," she says, eagerly, as she throws Austin and Ruth together -- and as the woman Ruth accompanied to the party, who is only too eager to dish the details of her friend's personal life. Together, Craig and Markell amuse as a pair of transplanted Southerners who take to Boston like pecan pie, and as an elderly couple at cross purposes because he wants to retire to Florida and she will be separated from Boston (and her grandchildren) over her dead body. "He's found this retirement community in Florida," she confides. "It has its own golf course," he notes, proudly. "It looks like a concentration camp," she replies, jabbing an icepick into his dream.

Jonathan Silverstein's direction finds a nearly ideal balance between these deftly drawn cartoons and the troubled pair warily circling each other at center stage. Laurence Lau's Austin -- handsome in an unobtrusive, square-jawed way -- is so gracefully mannered you could say he has a PhD in social graces, yet, flickering across his face is a gnawing unease -- a sense that something, somewhere, went terribly wrong -- as he laughs at others' lame jokes and lends an attentive, sympathetic ear to people who don't really interest him at all. Barbara Garrick, dressed in flowing white, sporting an extravagant necklace of polished stones, her hair expensively rumpled -- there's just the tiniest hint of Miss Havisham about her -- makes Ruth into a figure of practiced charm, her eyes reflecting signals of fury and distress.

The rest of the production has the necessary style: Steven Kemp's expansive terrace setting is decorated with festoons of lightbulbs overhead, with hundreds of points of light worked into the upstage night-sky drop. David Lander's lighting is typically precise and Obadiah Eaves' sound design provides some scene-setting cocktail-piano passages as well as the noise of partygoers enjoying themselves. The real stars of the design team are Jennifer Paar, the costume designer, and Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas, the wig, hair, and makeup designers, who transform Markell and Craig into radically different characters, often with seconds to spare.

Without deft direction and sensitive performances, Later Life could break into two very different parts, but, thanks to Silverstein and his cast, the scenes featuring Craig and Markell, in addition to providing a comic countermelody to the central characters' melancholic waltz, make an essential point: The people at Sally's party -- indeed, Sally herself, who has thrown over her life following the death of her husband -- are navigating major changes, sometimes thriving on them. Austin, frozen in a role chosen for him, is suddenly cast in a return engagement of the two-person drama that, very possibly, dictated the course of his life. As he comes to understand, his greatest fear has, perhaps, come true -- when he wasn't looking. -- David Barbour

(15 March 2018)

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