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Theatre in Review: Harry Townsend's Last Stand (City Center Stage II)

Len Cariou, Craig Bierko. Photo: Maria Baranova.

If it's December, it must be time for summer stock, or so one might think while sitting through this mild, slow-moving father-and-son wrangle. Even as performed by a pair of popular television actors with extensive stages resumes, this is little more than a lengthy squabble, filled with pre-cable sitcom jokes about the indignities of old age. Your reviewer, who cannot be said to be in the first flush of youth, was not amused.

The title character of Harry Townsend's Last Stand is an elderly widower living alone in a Vermont cabin. Once a popular local radio personality, he is failing by degrees, as attested to by the burns on his arms, the coffee pot in the oven, and the general air of disarray. His daughter, who remains offstage, is fed up with being a full-time caretaker, so she has summoned her twin brother, Alan, a real estate agent from San Diego, to sweet-talk the old man into opting for assisted living. Not that Harry and Alan have anything in common. Indeed, the weekend begins on an ominous note, with Harry announcing, "We're going to bond, Alan, and that means you have to pay attention to everything I say."

This is easier said than done, given the parade of flaccid gag lines that make up the dialogue. Harry, rather belatedly, offers to school Alan in the facts of life, the first rule being never to pass gas during sex. He accuses the local doctor of "going gay," adding that he stopped seeing his wife fifteen years ago. "Ruthie died fifteen years ago," Alan says. "But he could have remarried, if he wanted to," replies Harry, pointedly. He excoriates the digital habits of the younger generation, saying of them, "If it's not on the screen of your hand-job, it doesn't happen." "They're called hand-held," deadpans Alan. Listening to jokes about quiche and waterbeds, one realizes that the play's sense of humor, like the pileup of snack crackers on Harry's kitchen counter, is long past its sell-by date. Or, as Harry says, "What a life I once had, and now the only thing I can get up is phlegm."

This sort of gagging leaves little time for conflict or character development. When Harry announces, yet again, that it is time for Alan to move back home, the latter replies, "Not that simple, Dad. You have a very complex son." If that's true, we never hear about it. (As per the script, Alan was an English teacher, moved to California to work for his father-in-law, got divorced, and is dating a nice lady. End of story.) The assisted living issue is one that many older people and their children have to face together, and it could make for drama, but it is treated entirely superficially here. There is a pro forma exchange of grievances near the end, but they are resolved quicker than you can say On Golden Pond. George Eastman hasn't really written a play; he has outlined a scenario, and it badly wants filling-in.

It's hard to judge Karen Carpenter's production because it feels so unfinished. As Harry, Len Cariou has his moments, whether irritably shrugging off an afghan, growling in frustration at his son's ministrations, or belatedly admitting that he is much frailer than he wants to let on. But, based on the performance I attended, he isn't yet on top of his lines, a situation that lends a start-and-stop quality to the action; this Broadway legend deserves better. Craig Bierko underplays smoothly, employing a grin that, from time to time, threatens to turn into a grimace, whether reacting visibly to the taste of Grape-Nuts or wincing in embarrassment at the unwanted news that his mother and father often repaired to nearby stores for clandestine sexual encounters. In another, better comedy, he would be a valuable asset.

The production design -- Lauren Helpern's attractively lived-in Adirondack-style cottage, Jeff Davis' time-of-day lighting looks, David C. Woolard's costumes, and John Gromada's sound -- is the work of pros, barely breaking a sweat. But this is the kind of limp star vehicle that used to populate the straw-hat circuit, even then to little acclaim. But that Harry -- he's got a million of them. "What do you need to know about oral sex?" he asks a mortified Alan, apropos of nothing. Actually, Harry, from you we don't need to another thing. --David Barbour

(5 December 2019)

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