It's fairly common to become a little more reserved as we approach middle age and sense that the risk-taking days of our youth are fading ever more quickly into the past. But the main character of A.R. Gurney's 1993 play Later Life, now running at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, makes his midlife timidity into an art form. Unfortunately, a similar kind of risk aversion is present in this Keen Company production. Under Jonathan Silverstein's direction, Later Life looks terrific but ultimately has the emotional excitement of a game of solitaire.
Gurney, a prolific interpreter of upper-middle-class discontent, took his inspiration for Later Life from Henry James's short novel The Beast in the Jungle, which tells the story of a man who is so convinced that something horrific is going to happen to him that he avoids taking any chances in life. In Gurney's play, divorcé Austin (a poised, well-pressed Laurence Lau) has a similar obsessive anxiety.
Austin attends a party one evening at the home of well-heeled couple Jim and Sally (Liam Craig and Jodie Markell in two of several roles), whose backyard overlooks Boston Harbor (impressive brick-walled patio by Steven Kemp and creative cityscape lighting by David Lander). He runs into Ruth (a lively Barbara Garrick), whom he doesn't recognize right away, but she reminds him that they knew each other long ago. As the night progresses, Austin and Ruth reconnect, and amorous sparks seem ready to fly after persistent matchmaking attempts from Sally and others. But when Ruth receives an unexpected phone call from another man, any romantic fires the two may have kindled seem in danger of being extinguished.
Lau plays Austin with impeccable tidiness, showing us a life regularly swept clean of the emotional detritus of a failed marriage. Austin's excessive politeness and bland masculinity are balanced by Ruth, played with animation by Garrick, who wears a light summer dress and orange-crystal necklace that suggest her freer, if not baggage-free, spirit (costume design by Jennifer Paar).
These two characters could have been enough for a solid two-hander if Gurney had spent more time unpacking their lives, fears, and hidden desires, but instead he chose to include several other characters (all played by Craig and Markell) who act as cartoonish foils to Austin. As these miscellaneous caricatures pop in and out of the action, making silly quips and spouting uninspired platitudes, they tend to dilute any interest we have in Austin's psychological aversion to taking chances, and we're left wishing that Gurney himself had been willing to take more risks with his two main characters.
That's not to say that director Silverstein hasn't inflated the tires of this 80-minute one-act as much as he could. Peppering the dialogue are flashes of Gurney's humor as he satirizes white privilege and its casual racism. Sadly, most of those one-liners now sound like clichés masquerading as wit. Lacking throughout the play is a dramatic story line to make us care about Austin and his fear of being a human being with complex, messy feelings. Finally, late in the play, Lau injects some raw emotion into a scene and shows us the pent-up frustration that we've been waiting to see boil over in Austin. But with so little leading up to that moment, his outburst, and the play itself, ends less with a bang than a whimper.