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Emotional Void


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Northlight Theatre

at the Organic Theater

The premise of Later Life, A.R. Gurney's wry comedy of missed opportunities, must be familiar to almost everyone. A man and a woman who have been introduced at a party try to pick each other up. Their conversation is delicately filigreed with innuendo, expressed with restrained warmth and the best manners imaginable. It might lead to something, if only one of them would say the right thing. And if only those other damned party guests didn't keep intruding.

But more than just sexual frustration, Gurney's theme is emotional impotence: this failed fling embodies a lifetime of psychic sterility, a subject that has inspired some of his finest, most elegant writing--and some of his funniest, too. But though this short one-act is an inviting vehicle for lean, sophisticated acting and supports a thoughtful, finely crafted production, finally it suffers from the same aloofness as its hero.

Inspired in part by Henry James's 1903 story "The Beast in the Jungle" (not James's novel The Ambassadors, as last week's Chicago Tribune review suggested), Later Life concerns Austin, a man who--in the words of Dante's Inferno, which Austin quotes with typical erudite self-absorption--finds himself "in the middle of the journey of our life . . . within a dark wood where the straight way was lost." Recently divorced and taking Prozac for his depression (the ever-polite Austin visited a psychiatrist only because his children asked him to and he didn't want to disappoint them), Austin is a successful banker and lifelong resident of Boston, "the Athens of America" and the city where Gurney, a literature professor at MIT, has frequently taught James's story to undergraduates. A product of Groton and Harvard, Austin is a man whose family has held the same symphony seats for four generations, and who excels at one sport--squash--only if he's playing in his hometown.

Welcome to WASPville, the social and psychological setting of such Gurney plays as The Cocktail Hour, The Dining Room, Love Letters, and the scintillating comedy The Fourth Wall, which too few people saw last year in its world premiere at the Briar Street Theatre. Premiered in May 1993 at the off-Broadway Playwright's Horizons, Later Life reveals Gurney's standard preoccupations: the malaise of the aging white east-coast aristocracy in a climate of vast change, and the void separating logical, affluent, emotionally repressed men from the vital, questing, sometimes troubled women whom, in their way, they love.

But there's more going on here. In Michael Gross's finely etched performance (bolstered by the actor's aquiline face and elegant demeanor), Austin's not just boring, he's dried-up. His problem isn't an inability to express his feelings, it's that the feelings themselves are absent. The closest he can come to passion--when he talks about the ex-wife who rejected him for a younger, less worthy man--is a clenched petulance, the withered stump of what might once have been anger. When he meets Ruth, played by the lovely Kristine Thatcher as a woman whose wary warmth signals a life sometimes lived with too much intensity, Austin is smart enough to recognize a second chance. But as their talk progresses--despite repeated interruptions by other guests, all played by the same two actors, Greg Vinkler and Linda Kimbrough--it becomes achingly clear (no, not achingly: Austin's too numb) that the affair that never was, will never be. Ruth reminds Austin that they met 30 years earlier, when he was a young naval officer. They spent the evening together, but when she invited him home he declined, explaining that he was haunted by the certainty that something was destined to happen to him, some disaster that would ruin his life, and he didn't want to involve her in it. It's clear--to the audience long before Ruth--that the "something" is the nothing Austin's life has been.

A soul as stunted as Austin's is the result of more than just a chilly upper-crust upbringing, of course. And here's where Gurney falls short: having painted a credible picture of a man with deep psychic flaws, he fails to probe their roots. One can look to James's story for guidance--a perhaps unconscious allegory for repressed homosexuality, a theme that runs through much of James's work--but I don't think Austin's a closet queen. For one thing, genteel homosexuality is an accepted element of Austin's world: in the play's powerful climax a gay philosophy teacher uncontrollably weeps for his dead lover, making Austin's own emptiness all the more apparent. But though firmly heterosexual, Austin suffers from a fear of women that must surely date back to childhood. There's a tantalizing hint of infan- tile eroticism--Austin's memory of watching his naked nurse through the bars of his crib--but no words at all about his parents. Only a provoca- tive but unexplored statement that his childhood reminds him of a fly trapped in a spider's web: "systematically wrapped in silk until you can't breathe."

Failing to pursue the implications of such a statement, Later Life leaves us rather like Austin, observant but disconnected from the world. Well played under Russell Vandenbroucke's direction as a subtly inflected comedy of manners (Jeff Bauer's terrace set recalls Coward's Private Lives, the genre's epitome), Later Life is a showpiece for excellent understated acting. The contrasts between Austin and Ruth and the various eccentric, vital characters who pop on and off the terrace are handled much more believably than they were in the play's New York production, in which Carole Shelley and Anthony Heald turned the supporting roles into star turns. Here Gross, Thatcher, Vinkler, and Kimbrough function as a balanced ensemble, a sort of theatrical string quartet in which a moody duet for viola and cello is periodically accented by comical violin and bass. Attentive to subtext, these four fine actors take their roles as far as Gurney's intriguing but inconclusive script--a bittersweet example of the cost of emotional avoidance in playwriting as in life--will allow them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.

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