The Review: Keen Company’s Later Life
Interruptions. Interruptions. That’s the thing that keeps happening in A. R. Gurney’s Later Life, now being revived by the Keen Company at Theatre Row. One after the other, but it all starts with a setting of the stage by Sally, the lovely and pushy host of a friendly gathering in a charming apartment overlooking Boston Harbor. Played by Jodie Markell (Public’s Machinal), in the first of many characters she plays throughout this well-crafted 90 minute one-act play, she lights a candle and shifts a few chairs on an expansive well-appointed terrace, designed with grace by Steven Kemp (Keen’s tick, tick… BOOM!), and lit with numerous stars above by David Lander (2ST’s Torch Song), and then, she states, “That’s all I can do. Just set the stage.”
After the re-arranging, we see what she has in mind. She’s playing match-maker, planning a romantic introduction of two of her guests, the way things used to play out in the pre-social media/dating app world when people were introduced by friends with a hope that they would spark up colorful and engaging conversation. She’s hoping these two, in the later years of their post-divorced life, will find that elusive chemistry within each other to re-enter the world of love and romance. She draws out Austin, played with a solid and polite fortitude by the square-jawed Laurence Lau (LCT’s Dada Woof Papa Hot), who is the perfect example of ‘the successful good guy’ who most ladies would like their friends to marry (but maybe not themselves). Polite and quietly engaging, Lau infusing Austin with a sweet kindness that is almost dull and dis-engaging. But Ruth, played with a witty sharpness and a slightly off-putting delivery by Barbara Garrick (Broadway’s Eastern Standard), the woman ushered out by Sally, is not going to be swayed by bland politeness. She’s going to poke and playfully whittle some aliveness out of this pleasant man, because she remembers him from many years ago, before either of their marriages, and knows a little about what might lie beneath his carefully orchestrated civility. You see, these two had met before, when he was a young man in the Navy and she was a happy-go-lucky young lady on vacation in Capri. They were instantly smitten on that Italian island, and even kissed, but Austin retreated, out of a vocalized feeling of impending possible doom, leaving Ruth to pine over the ships that had just passed in the night, when all she really wanted to do was jump onboard. As directed by Jonathan Silverstein (Keen’s Lonely Planet) their talk that night, reconnecting after both have lived their adult life under very different winds, is a smooth sail through lovely calm waters; charming, engaging, and somewhat electric, keeping us all guessing and engrossed within Gurney’s smart back and forth. Their chemistry is mild when all are hoping for more. They never really reach up and beyond to the ‘hot Italian summer night air’ filled with passion and fireworks. It’s pleasant enough though like a stroll along an old pretty street on Capri, and we like them both, hoping for that leap into the great Mediterranean blue-grotto’d abyss where love and romance might await them.
Maybe because they keep getting interrupted. Time and time again. By a wide range of other guests at what must be the most eclectic dinner party in town. All played by Markell and Liam Craig (TFANA’s The Killer), with different wigs and costumes (Costumes: Jennifer Paar; Wig & Hair: Dave Bova & J. Jared Janas) thrown on one after the other. It must be a dizzying affair backstage, but onstage most of these characters, from the self-hating smoker, to a hungry and talkative lesbian, and a story-seeking couple who just moved to Boston from Texas, fail to fully resonate. Most feel like extreme accents laid on top of playful cartoon characters all showing these two reacquainted souls how daring action and embracing change must be part of the game of life.
For both of these actors though, only one interrupting persona encapsulates something real and true. Markell’s host, Sally feels genuine and unique, authentic in her concern and desire for her two friends to find some shelter in each other, while Craig’s portrayal of Austin’s best friend carries the same beautiful edge, hoping that his buddy bravely steps over the edge and re-engages in the world. Not that Austin is a lost case, but he is a man, so afraid of the possible, that he stays neatly in the calm waters of the easy and clear. Ruth on the other hand, lives life with a spirited outlook of ‘let’s give it a shot, and see’, maybe to her detriment. We can’t help but to join with Ruth as we watch her attempt to lure Austin over the edge with her, but then a final interruption occurs, a phone call comes in from her ex-husband, a slightly dangerous ‘Marlboro Man‘ back in Vegas, with an edge that makes us all want to tell her ‘no’. But she doesn’t appear to want to listen to the storm clouds brewing. Gurney will let us know which way the wind will blow in due time, but he also wants to lead us towards the main question of the night; ‘What will Austin do about it all?’
“When you die, you’ll probably say, ‘Excuse me.’ ” is said to Austin at one point, and although that must sting a bit below his genteel exterior, we don’t see much of a response beyond a mild-mannered intake of air. This slightly sad tale was meant to be enlivened by the variety of others and the choices they are attempting to make in their lives, hoping to passively influence a desire for engagement in these two divorced souls, but does it work in the end? It’s an almost annoyingly polite gathering, with two souls attempting to connect out on the terrace, and all the world trying to get in the way, or maybe push them closer together. It feels somewhat trivial, this party, although well constructed, and the air is heavy with possibility, but in the end, Later Life leaves us with a big question mark stamped on our and Austin’s furrowed brow. What will happen? This well written piece, full of civil and witty dialogue, crowded with too many chatty, eccentric, and slightly over-done guests, with some bland food and generic white wine to ingest, just made me want to slowly make my way out the door of this party smiling politely saying ‘thank you, and good night’, having had a generally nice time and enjoyed the view, but looking forward to getting home and climbing into my nice warm bed, all alone.