Life goes to a party

Shadow Theatre serves up martinis and middle-aged heartbreak in
Later Life

A.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

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