A.R. Gurney seems to be one of those playwrights you either love or hate, depending upon your appreciation of the dry wit and humor slowly unveiled within the restrained settings of his plays. Whether it's the painful family estrangement in The Middle Ages or The Cocktail Hour, or the ironies of fate in The Dining Room, Gurney's characters rarely deal with any conflict in a direct manner. Rather they artfully deliver insults and bloodlessly break hearts. They hail from the socioeconomic class that attends Groton and Harvard, that plays squash in musty but regal family clubs, that summers on the Cape, and that cringe at the excesses of the nouveau riche. It's the eccentricity and stodginess of old money that Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Jr. knows best, and about which he constantly writes so well.
Although I do not hail from such a family, I have always admired Gurney's ability to capture the predicament of these people, who seem to the rest of us as though they shouldn't have a care in the world. But with a subtle hand, he skillfully paints their inability to feel, their lack of personal esteem and motivation, their problems with escapism, alcohol, and bad marriages. I have often marveled at how he keeps dramatic action flowing within a world that frequently seems devoid of true motion or emotion.
Often marveled, that is, until this newest play, Later Life, now being staged at the Caldwell Theatre Company and presented off-Broadway just last year. On the surface, the premise should provide him with his greatest work, the perfect topper to his thesis that old money cannot deal with new realities. His main character, Austin, is the product of a wealthy Boston banking family who suddenly finds himself lost and alone as he faces his senior years. To make his discomfort worse, he's also surrounded by the confounding values of "multicultural America," which constantly conspire to yank him out of his pompous and isolated world.
Gurney's themes of alienation and ennui, of chances accepted and refused, of growing older with the awful realization that the passion has long gone and cannot be reclaimed, are nicely integrated through his usual superb writing. No one can fault him for his insightful perceptions or sophisticated dialogue, as when he describes the move from Boston to Florida as being akin to relocating from "Athens to Sparta."
What is missing in Later Life is action, and that makes the 80-minute, one-act play seem much, much longer. Gurney manipulates both the plot and the characters to make his points, constraining the story with artificial devices that obstruct the flow, and he has overloaded the script with exposition. In the hands of a lesser writer, a play like Later Life would be an awful piece, but Gurney's grand craft elevates it, if only slightly.
At a Boston party filled with absurdly eclectic guests, Austin meets Ruth on a terrace overlooking Boston Harbor. An irritating amount of verbiage is devoted to Boston itself, and most of it serves neither to further the plot nor justify its repetitiousness. Yes, Boston has changed as much as any other staid, northeastern city. Foreigners are moving in and taking over, the Old World aura is eroding. But so what? Gurney devotes a good 25 percent of his play to his city, and you'd have to be a pedigreed Brahmin to care much about any of it.
It turns out that Ruth and Austin knew each other briefly in their youth and almost fell in love. We learn this through an abundance of questions and answers. In the end, we expect some revelation about this earlier relationship, but it never arrives. Austin simply couldn't trust himself to feel too much for a woman then, and he still can't. Ruth, on the other hand, a plucky Midwesterner whose life is filled with tragedy, has retained the adventurous nature of her youth.
While Ruth and Austin are slowly unraveling their lives, ten characters (all played by the same two actors) wander onto the terrace, and deliver their symbolic messages in one of the most contrived fashions I've seen. Even worse, these characters are absurd caricatures: a computer nerd who can't relate to romance, a weeping gay man who can't give up cigarettes, a buck-toothed couple from the South who are intent upon devouring life, a bitchy lesbian who picks at her food, an elderly couple who bicker about everything. This poorly drawn array of supporting players interrupts Ruth and Austin's budding romance, but more unfortunately, they continually bring any action to a halt.
Gurney's point is obvious. Each character briefly reveals his or her own story, and each acts as a metaphor for the challenge of changing later in life A change and redeem yourself or refuse to do so and be doomed. But their appearances are packed so tightly together and are such abrupt intrusions that before long you want to kick them off the stage and out of the play so Ruth and Austin can get on with it.
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Gurney, who also pens novels, has written something here that is highly personal, clearly autobiographical, but decidedly not dramatic. Perhaps the tale would have been expressed better between covers than on the boards. As it is, Michael Hall does a decent job directing what could have been an utterly static piece, and Frank Bennett's charming scenic design helps lull you into a dulled boredom while awaiting the few witty gems, which in this play come far too infrequently.
John Gardiner, in the role of Austin, is the personification of uptight, pushing his rigidity to a point where the honesty of his acting suffers. He is so unappealing in his weakness and fear that the romantic suspense of the play is diminished. You don't want Austin to get the girl, you just want him to hide himself in the family library until he withers away.
In the corny roles of the men and women, Pat Nesbit and John FitzGibbon do their best, but the script confines them to playing such ridiculous characters that they rarely have a chance to shine. Instead they are forced to mug and overact by the very dictates of the script. Only when Nesbit plays Sally, the hostess of the party, and FitzGibbon plays Jimmy, fighting his losing battle against nicotine, do they emote any true vulnerability and reality. Of the cast, the best-written role and best acting job is done by Kathleen Huber as Ruth, in a no-nonsense, immensely likable portrayal of a woman who has suffered but still stokes the fires of life.
Throughout the work, you can acutely sense Gurney's melancholy mood, his own confusion about life as he enters his sixties. Meandering thoughts, regrets, and dim observations characterize this play, ultimately undermining it with a ponderous, depressing tone. It is ironic that when we finally achieve the wisdom of age, the sure-footed knowledge we possessed in youth seems to fade away. This fate can lead some writers to create works that are ambitious in a thoughtful sort of way, but sometimes they smell too much of the grave.