The flavor of A.R. Gurney’s sad-sweet 1993 romance Later Life is the opposite of an acquired taste. Instead, it’s a lost taste: a story whose power has been dulled by time and changing context. For the little playlet to succeed, you’d need an exquisite atmosphere, something to distract us from its flaws. The Keen Company’s revival, though, is merely dutiful. The resulting awkwardness is mainly the text’s fault: Gurney’s jokes have aged badly, and his wistful watercolor mood leans toward bathos. But there’s also not enough heat in Jonathan Silverstein’s production — certainly no chemistry, and only a little charm.
Later Life is an 85-minute one-act about the middle-aged, divorced, lonely banker Austin (Laurence Lau) encountering a transfixing woman from his past. At a party, Austin’s friend Sally (Jodie Markell) steers him onto her patio overlooking Boston Harbor to meet the available and delectable Ruth (Barbara Garrick). Ruth remembers, as Austin does not, their meeting decades ago, when Austin (as a young serviceman on Capri) seduced her with talk of a looming and nameless fear. She has always wondered if he was right, if the disaster ever came. “I was snowing you!” he cries, and the snow worked. Despite her four intervening marriages, Ruth has remembered Austin, and now the two flirt and try to re-entangle. Garrulous party guests (all played by Markell and a cartoony Liam Craig) keep wandering out to interrupt them, but it’s clear the central couple might have another chance at love.
In his introduction to the play, Gurney tips his hat to Henry James: James’s bitter novella The Beast in the Jungle was his inspiration. You might also recognize an echo of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, which demonstrated how complacency stems from bottomless terror. Gurney wants to talk lightly about something important — a noble goal — but he does a bad job with the mechanics of converting his frightening sources into comedy. The interrupting partygoers, for instance, are a string of hack-y bits like “computer-obsessed guy who forgot his wife’s birthday” and “turtleneck philosopher” that barely seem stage-worthy.
There’s another danger lurking in Later Life, though it’s not the doom Austin senses. Some of the trouble lies with the classic Gurney subject — the well-to-do WASP with secret sadness — who once seemed as fascinating as one of Chekhov’s aristocrats. Gurney was conscious of chronicling a decline; he was singing his odes to East Coast stoicism and a Boston Brahmin sense of tradition, values eroded by the fast-moving twentieth century. While describing that vanishing milieu, his plays often showed us the ache of privileged desperation, sometimes medicated away with Prozac (as it is for Austin), sometimes not. So far, so Chekhov. But there’s a key difference. In a Chekhov play, everyone — student, sister, uncle, fool — has that ache, so what could be solipsistic (ow! I have pain!) becomes humanist (everyone has pain). Later Life hasn’t got anything like that generosity. Only Austin, our poor little rich man, displays true interiority. The guests are caricatures, while Ruth is merely the moth to Austin’s dim flame. Perhaps that seemed less narrow 25 years ago?
Still, even a blinkered drama can be lovely in the right hands. There’s a promise of escapism in Steven Kemp’s set, which is spangled with warm lanterns that stretch into constellations above. And before the show started, an approving murmur rose from the audience around me. “A romance about older people,” a woman said, “you don’t see enough of those.” Sure! Yes! That would be a pleasure. Sadly, the production doesn’t spin the requisite spell. Lau is quiet and occasionally warm, but he and Garrick strike no sparks.
In fact, Garrick hasn’t got to grips with Ruth: Far from playing Gurney’s manic pixie dream woman, Garrick presents as another of the noises that’s too loud for risk-averse Austin. She says her lines all on a single insistent note, and her smile, even at the curtain call, is just a frozen curl. She grips at her wine glass, never taking a sip (this free spirit, this Bohemian!), and, since she has no nuance in either expression or speech, hammers at every innuendo like a nail. Garrick has a long stage and film history, but she’s stiff and unlistening here. For Gurney’s plot to work at all, we need a Ruth that represents the path of adventure; at bare minimum, she should be able to twinkle. Garrick’s rather frightening imperviousness leaves us wondering if Austin wouldn’t be better off alone. Heaven knows, he needs to face himself for a minute — fellas like him could do with a real struggle.