Apr. 28, 2004 - Issue #445: Rolling Up The Rim
Life goes to a party
Shadow Theatre serves up martinis and middle-aged heartbreak in Later LifeA.R. Gurney’s Later Life begins with its hero, a straitlaced banker named Austin (David Ley), falling into conversation at a party with a retired philosophy professor named Jim (John Sproule), who’s trying, without much success, to quit smoking. In fact, you get the feeling that Jim isn’t hooked on nicotine so much as he is on delivering long, rueful soliloquies about the appeal of a fresh cigarette and the agony of living in a world that frowns so disapprovingly upon his favourite habit. The scene ends with Jim explaining to Austin why deciding to quit is such a momentous occasion: “All decisions are, at our age!” he says. “Younger people can change their minds, change their lives. That’s fine, they have a lifetime ahead of them to change again. But for us who have had a whiff of the grave—it all boils down to our last chance.” At that moment, a woman named Ruth (Michele Brown) walks onstage, and although Austin doesn’t realize it until much too late in the game, she’s his last chance. It turns out that Austin and Ruth met each other years before, during the Second World War: he was a naval officer on leave on the Isle of Capri, and she was touring Italy with a bunch of her sorority sisters. They hit it off immediately, but after spending the day together, Austin, too wrapped up in his own youthfully gloomy neuroses to recognize a good thing when he saw it, declined Ruth’s offer to come up to her room. Now, many years later, the same spark exists between them—if anything, the passage of time has made their intimacy even easier, as Austin and Ruth find themselves revealing private secrets to each other that they’ve probably never told anybody else. Gurney is sympathetic but surprisingly tough-minded in his handling of Austin. Without portraying him as a humourless middle-aged fuddy-duddy, Gurney shows how Austin’s old-fashioned Boston manners are a sign of a deeper, paralyzing fear of risk, of leaping into life. There’s a quiet brutality in the way Gurney has Ruth look at Austin late in the play and realize that this man, who pulls out her chair for her, who listens to her with such sympathy, who makes such wry, witty jokes about their fellow guests, who she always describes as so “good” and “thoughtful,” just isn’t someone she can fall in love with. Ley gives a subdued performance that downplays the pathos of Austin’s situation, but he’s perfectly in tune with Austin’s reserved manner, the way he hides his social discomfort under a mask of gentlemanly civility. And he does a wonderful job with the scene where Austin stammers out a reluctant admission that he’s just gone through a painful divorce. Brown, meanwhile, is totally believable as Ruth, a well-educated, urbane woman who nevertheless likes her sex life to have a healthy amount of lowdown disorder to it. (Austin promises to lend Ruth a pair of “decent pyjamas” if she comes home with him that night, and the politely disappointed way Brown repeats the phrase “decent pyjamas” is the only clue you need to predict whether she’ll accept his offer.) Later Life’s big gimmick, however, is that the 10 other characters in the play—a bickering husband and wife, a beer-swilling lesbian chatterbox, a computer nerd, a timid viola player fresh from an assertiveness workshop and many, many more—are all played by the same two actors, Davina Stewart and John Sproule. It’s certainly a kick to see Stewart and Sproule cutting loose in such a goofy selection of costumes and wigs (as Ted McAlister, a tactless but good-hearted Southerner newly transplanted to Boston, Sproule sports an outrageous pompadour that’s worthy of the Leningrad Cowboys), but many of these characters are so cartoonish compared to Austin and Ruth that they seem to have wandered in from another play—perhaps some wacky farce being staged down the street. It’s a bit distracting. There are important exceptions, though: Sproule does an expert drunk routine as Austin’s friend Walt, and he gives Jim a very poignant final scene as he recalls his dead cat Clementine; and Stewart brings out a whole series of surprising layers in Sally the hostess with only a handful of brief dialogue exchanges. With all the costume changes and the funny wigs, it’s easy to miss how cunningly Gurney has woven the idea of people caught between their desire to change their lives and their need to cling to the past into almost every single vignette. Its virtues, like Austin’s, are old-fashioned ones—wit, intelligence, taste—and yet Gurney also shares Ruth’s awareness that wit, intelligence and taste, on their own, might not be enough. Later Life has more: it has humour, it has wisdom and it has John Sproule in a really ridiculous wig. V Later Life Directed by John Hudson • Written by A.R. Gurney • Starring David Ley, Michele Brown, John Sproule and Davina Stewart • Varscona Theatre • To May 9 • 454-5564
New comments for this entry have been turned off and any existing ones are hidden. We apologize for any inconvenience.