Sunday, November 5, 2017

REVIEW: A. R. GURNEY BITTERSWEET COMEDY OF MANNERS EXAMINES SECOND CHANCES WITH POIGNANT HUMOR

By Ruth Ross

With his East Coast WASP background and prep school/Ivy League education, A.R. Gurney has a bird’s eye view of his plays’ protagonists and their foibles, skewering both with gentle wit and genial humor—a stance on full display in the poignantly bittersweet dramatic comedy of manners, Later Life, now onstage at Alliance Rep in Summit.

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A tale of lost opportunity and advancing age, Later Life revolves around an encounter between divorced 50-ish Boston banker Austin and the still-married-but-separated, more free-spirited Ruth at a penthouse party. The meeting is actually a rendezvous: Thirty years before, when he was a naval officer on leave and she traveling with girlfriends, they met on the isle of Capri and experienced romantic “chemistry,” only to have the relationship go nowhere because of some vague premonition Austin had that something terrible will happen in his life. Unwilling to involve Ruth in his troubles, he parted from her with a kiss. Over the course of 90 minutes, Austin and Ruth seem to be on the cusp of rekindling their romance, an outcome left strangely unpredictable, and unfulfilled. (Above: Alan Ellis and Leslie Williams)

Image may contain: 1 person, suit and stripesOne of the problems with Later Life, stylishly directed by David Christopher, lies in Gurney’s depiction of the protagonists, leaving the actors with not much to develop by way of characterization and the audience with little sympathy for their plight. Appearing onstage for the first time in 30 years, Alan Ellis (right) looks a bit stiff and uncomfortable. For the most part, this suits Austin, a rather formal, polite man who considers Boston to be the Athens of America and worries about its loss of civility. Ellis’ rigid posture telegraphs Austin’s inability to understand the opportunity this meeting presents, a chance for a new beginning with a woman he has connected with once before. That he’s had a good life, with a fairly good marriage, successful grown children and a fulfilling career makes this fear of impending doom seem suspect. One wishes Ellis’ debut appearance would have provided more “meat” to show his dramatic stuff.

Image may contain: 1 personAs Ruth, Leslie Williams (left) is the more likeable of the two. In contrast to Austin, her life has been less than happy: Multiple marriages and the loss of a young child engender our sympathy for her. Open to a new opportunity with Alan, she tests his recollection of their previous encounter, nostalgically commenting, “We were doing something rare in this world; we were making a connection, " one that, sadly, went nowhere. Williams’ coyness borders on the chirpy and at times her character sounds like a therapist, but, again, Gurney hasn’t given her much to work with.

This literal comedy of manners is disrupted by amusing guests (most of them middle aged and older) who wander out onto the terrace from time to time. Tait Ruppert and Judi Laganga each play five of these interlopers, to great comedic effect. Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, sitting, table and indoorRuppert is hilarious as Jimmy (right), the “tobacco challenged” retired philosophy professor who’s trying to kick his “existential” smoking habit; a computer geek aghast that his wife is still using DOS 2.0 and Wordstar (it’s 1993); and Austin’s best friend, the ebullient Walt (right) who raves about Austin’s squash game as though it’s what defines the man. Laganga brings down the house as the busybody hostess who sets up Austin and Ruth; a snooty Brit (below) who gives a running commentary about the food she’s brought outdoors; Esther McAllister, an adoring Southern housewife, new to Boston, in whom Ruth confides the sorry details of her life; and the woman who has brought Ruth to the party and who divulges her friend’s current marital status to Austin. In these brief vignettes, Gurney reveals more about character than he does with the two protagonists, giving Ruppert and Laganga something to run with.

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting, drink, table and indoorDavid Munro’s minimal set—a low wall and wrought-iron bistro set—provide all the set design needed for a play that focuses so much on character. Gordon Wiener’s sound design of party hubbub, heard whenever someone enters or leaves the terrace, adds to the verisimilitude of the setting.

Once again, Alliance Rep brings to us plays performed by a limited cast that aren’t widely known, but that give us a glimpse of a world we might never know. Whether you find the writing satisfying or not, Alliance Rep’s polished performance of Later Life strikes all the right notes. Inevitably, we’ll all reach “later life” and may be offered a chance at happiness that eluded us in the past. Will Austin shed his puritanical WASP shackles and join free-spirited Ruth on life’s journey? Has (or will) something really bad happen to him? Gurney’s open-ended denouement leaves the answer to you.

Later Life will be performed at Mondo, 426 Springfield Ave., Summit, through November 18. For information and tickets, visit https://alliancerepertory.ticketleap.com/life/ online.

Photos by Howard Fischer.