Taking the Sting Out of WASPS

In his elegantly directed production of A.R. Gurney's Later Life, director Rafael de Acha tellingly gives Cole Porter the last word. As the lights dim at the end of this wistful comedy, "Begin the Beguine" drifts over the sound system at New Theatre in Coral Gables. Porter's rhapsody to romantic memory underscores the theme of Gurney's 1993 one-act play; it also evokes a past American era, when the formal values of the white upper crust were less challenged by multicultural concerns. With a mixture of satire and nostalgia, Gurney has been parodying the emotional lives and the arcane rituals of the American aristocracy for 40 years. In choosing to close Later Life with the Porter number, de Acha reveals his full appreciation of Gurney's sensibility, an appreciation that pervades the entire evening.

Although not as clever as an earlier Gurney comedy, 1982's The Dining Room, or as richly expressive as the bittersweet Love Letters from 1988, the solidly structured Later Life exploits a simple situation in order to probe beneath the skins of several unfulfilled lives. On a condominium deck overlooking Boston Harbor, two people who shared a brief romantic interlude 25 years earlier meet again by chance at a party. Ruth, the survivor of four marriages and the death of a child, recognizes Austin, a divorced Navy veteran who followed the patrician path through business school into a banking career, although he doesn't recognize her. As Ruth leads Austin through reminiscences of their original meeting, party guests interrupt them by stumbling onto the deck. Ruth and Austin move toward a possible reconnection while simultaneously interacting with these different characters. Ultimately it becomes clear that Austin's poor memory reflects a numbness toward his entire life, forcing Ruth to reassess her romanticized view of their past.

David Alt carefully crafts his depiction of Austin as a shy banker in midlife, a man alienated from passion and desire who, nonetheless, has maintained an aura of mystery that still makes him attractive to women. In a marvelously restrained performance, Alt allows us a glimpse of Austin's vulnerability by letting the character's veil of control slip away at well-chosen moments.

In contrast to Austin, Ruth describes herself as a woman who "courts disaster." Fleeing an allegedly abusive husband and searching for a place to settle down, the character could easily be interpreted as flighty or desperate. Instead, in a graceful and self-assured portrayal, Cynthia Caquelin, winner of the 1994-95 Carbonell Award for Best Actress, plays Ruth as grounded, sane, and wise, a decision that lends Ruth more dimension than any other character in the play.

David Kwiat and Bethany Bohall have great fun with a series of Boston types, including Kwiat's portrayal of a philosophy professor and a computer geek, and Bohall's of a snooty lesbian and a society hostess. Together they also portray a working-class couple squabbling over staying in Beantown or moving to Florida, and a hell-raising middle-age pair recently relocated from Houston. Although a forced accent strains Bohall's credibility as a Boston grandmother, she remains convincing and amusing in her other roles. The protean Kwiat stops short of overpowering the other players with his rubbery facial expressions, agile gestures, and command of accents. Remarkably, his quick-change comic depictions transcend caricature; a clown in the noblest sense of the word, he imbues each role he plays with pathos as well as humor. The emotional range he brings to these minor characters suggests his gifts should be tapped for weightier material.

It's a measure of the relationship between the four actors and director de Acha that Kwiat's outrageous energy blends into the whole. De Acha directs the ensemble as if they were performing a piece of music, counterpointing the lyricism of Ruth and Austin's duet with the brassier supporting roles. At the end, trusting his actors with the material, he slows the tempo almost to a crawl, drawing out the dramatic tension with long pauses that resonate with the sadness and loss lying just below the play's surface.

Deceptive in its simplicity, Michael Thomas Essad's set provides the players with a three-dimensional metaphor for being emotionally unmoored. At first the angular white set, sparsely dotted with black Art Deco elements, looks more like a room in Miami Beach's Delano Hotel than a condo deck. Yet as the actors negotiate their way around the wide stage floor, which protrudes farther than the New Theatre's stage usually extends, the space appears not only to overlook Boston Harbor but also to have been set afloat in the harbor itself. The actors seem to be on the deck of a boat, cut off from the safety of land, pitching ever so slightly with the uncertain movement of the sea.

Marta Lopez's urbane costumes meld with and play off the monochromatic set. Lopez mimics the set's black-and-white motif by dressing Austin in black tie and Ruth in ivory satin. Then she accents the quirkiness of the other characters through subtle accessories and colors that leap out against the white backdrop: brown shoes worn with a black tux, a multicolored cummerbund, a lavender evening gown.

Later Life is hardly a flawless play. Gurney tries to establish a sense of place through folksy Boston references to Symphony Hall, the Old North Church, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; often the characters end up sounding like tour guides reciting a list of landmarks. The entrances and exits of the supporting players prove equally self-conscious at times; though entertaining, the parade of new personalities tends to interrupt the script's rhythm. Finally, though Gurney lampoons a distinct social milieu, here, as in all his work, he prefers gentle mockery to biting criticism, almost as if, like his repressed WASP protagonists, he can't help being polite. Such shortcomings, however, do not lessen the pleasures of Gurney's work or the pleasures of this production, its fine performances, and its intelligent direction.

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