Is middle age too late for an earth-moving romance between a Bostonian with Brahmin reserve and a Midwesterner for whom grand passion is essential? In Later Life, the 1993 hit comedy revived by the Keen Company, playwright A.R. Gurney dramatizes this question with characteristic wit and capacious heart. Gurney, who grew up affluent in Buffalo, N.Y., carved a niche for himself Off-Broadway with a handful of urbane comedies—notably The Dining Room and The Cocktail Hour—whose characters have origins similar to his own. When Gurney died last June at age 86, he left a legacy of 49 plays, plus operas, musicals, and novels.
Bittersweet and very funny, Later Life is a theatrical pearl fabricated around a grain of inspiration from “The Beast in the Jungle,” a distinctly unfunny story by Henry James. The play takes place in the 1990s on a terrace high above Boston harbor. Designers Steven Kemp (scenery) and David Lander (lighting) provide a romantic environment for director Jonathan Silverstein’s production: rattan furniture, miniature boxwood, and twinkling lights of the cityscape with starry sky above it.
Offstage a party is under way; but Sally (Jodie Markell), chatelaine of this penthouse, has slipped outside for a little matchmaking. She’s introducing the recently divorced Austin (Laurence Lau) to Ruth (Barbara Garrick), a visitor from out of town who’s reportedly single.
But Ruth isn’t single, and the two aren’t exactly strangers. Three decades ago, when Austin was a “young naval officer steaming around the Mediterranean,” they spent a boozy evening flirting with each other on Capri. Through ensuing years, Ruth has treasured the memory of that encounter and of something Austin confided in a rash moment.
Austin doesn’t recall immediately where and when he met Ruth. By the time he realizes she’s the Illinois sorority girl with whom he passed those enticing hours in Italy, the chemistry they shared of old is bubbling up anew.
What Austin confided to Ruth thirty years ago—it has to do with an anxiety stalking him from an early age—is the narrative germ that Gurney borrows from Henry James. Yet Later Life isn’t Jamesian. The play’s effervescence, in fact, is the antithesis of the Master’s morose, measured prose; and Gurney’s characters and themes are creations of his own lively imagination.
“You said that you were sure something terrible was going to happen to you in the course of your life,” Ruth reminds Austin. “You said you were waiting for it to happen.” She wants to know whether his premonition has been fulfilled. Yet although Austin has experienced ups and downs, he’s affluent, satisfied in his work, proud of his children, and at peace with the dissolution of a so-so marriage. Like John Marcher in James’s story, he is still wandering “the jungle of his life,” waiting with dread for the beast to pounce.
Silverstein has assembled an admirable cast. Garrick captures the hard-edged complexity of Ruth, who’s debating whether to risk a return to the marketplace of dating or to stay in a marriage that, though abusive, is physically exciting and full of surprises.
As Austin, Lau bears the principal burden of the script’s darker aspects. This accomplished actor is sympathetic and believable throughout; but, in the nearly wordless final moments of the play, he doesn’t convey the full measure of poignancy in Gurney’s subtext. Later Life is about the disappointment and melancholy of aging and loss; its conclusion, which belongs entirely to Austin, should and can be heartrending. It isn’t now but may become so as the production’s run proceeds and Lau settles thoroughly into his role.
The greatest assets of this revival are Markell and Liam Craig as a succession of wacky party guests (and, in Markell’s case, the hostess as well). These two have the comic timing of old pros; and, with quicksilver changes of togs (designed by Jennifer Paar), wigs (by Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas), and dialect, they blunder on and off the terrace, interrupting the earnest, sometimes eloquent conversation of the might-yet-be lovers. Their range of clowning, dancing, and sundry histrionics keep playgoers’ giggle boxes overturned throughout the evening.
Gregory Mosher, speaking of Gurney’s Love Letters (which he directed on Broadway in 2014), has said: “Buried in that sneaky little play is a lot of pain, and an acute awareness of how really hard self-knowledge is.” The same is true of Later Life. But it must also be said that, in Gurney’s world, hope, joy, and hilarity always complement the pain.
Later Life, presented by the Keen Company, plays through April 14 at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd St., between Ninth and Tenth avenues). Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 3 p.m., with an additional matinee on April 11 at 2 p.m. For tickets and information, call (212) 239-6200, visit Telecharge.com, or go to the Theatre Row box office.