It’s a brilliant idea for a one-set play.
A.R. Gurney’s Later Life, now bring produced by Coachella Valley Repertory in Rancho Mirage, takes the tiniest slice of life and expands it into universal lessons, just as Gurney expands the four-person cast into a dozen characters in the show. It’s a terrific concept, and producer Ron Celona has invited guest director Luke Yankee to mastermind it.
Here it is: It’s 1993, and two people who were once briefly involved find each other, years later, at a party in Boston. They are out on the huge balcony away from the noise, where it’s easier to talk. As they discuss their long-ago relationship, other partygoers drift out into their space and interrupt with their own issues. The really interesting thing is that these 10 guests are played by just two other performers! It’s a golden opportunity for these two character actors to show off their versatility.
Playwright A.R. Gurney is the author of Love Letters (which I’ve seen four times). It’s an extraordinary play, and there is nothing else like it. Same with The Cocktail Hour and The Dining Room, and now Later Life. He is famous for plays about upper-class WASPs; we find that although their problems might be different from those of others, they are quite serious. Gurney’s mastery of dialogue removes the theater’s “fourth wall” and deeply involves the audience in their stories. The extraordinary feat of writing in Later Life is that Gurney gives each character his or her own voice—and I mean all of them: The 10 character roles each have personalities and appearances so wildly different from one another that if an audience isn’t alerted to this, they might believe there really are 12 different people in the cast. There aren’t many plays that give actors this kind of opportunity (though it happened to me last year when I played five roles in a play!). It’s important that the audience appreciates the extraordinary work being done here—and enjoys the fun of it.
Guest-director Luke Yankee has a stunning resume that speaks for itself—and he has tackled the challenge of Later Life with zest. The 90-minute show’s pace is brisk, despite the restrictions of one set and one act. (There’s no intermission—a great choice! It would have totally destroyed the timing.) His firm guiding hand is evident in the body language and the impressive variety displayed by the character actors as they morph from one role into another.
The play centers around Austin, played by William Fair, whom we meet immediately. The onion-layers of Austin peel away gradually throughout the play, revealing more and more of him and creating surprises right up to the very last second of the show. Our first suspicions of stereotype crumble away as he gradually reveals an unexpectedly complex and conflicted inner life. William Fair keeps us wondering as he juggles Austin’s instinctive self-protection along with his co-dependency and his longing to burst free from his shell.
Ruth is the lady who knew him Back When, and actress Barbara Niles achieves a sympathetic portrayal of a woman whose steel-trap memory contrasts with multiple mental games of, “What If?” as well as a huge need to be accepted and liked. Ruth combines her wounded past with a brave determination to be happy in the future; her struggles are thickly slathered over with what some will see as courage, and others will perceive as a dumb resistance to learning from her history. Niles gives us a deep portrait of a lovely, if sometimes exasperating, lady.
Gorgeous Teri Bibb plays five female roles who contrast wildly. We first see her as Sally, the party’s hostess—sweet and efficient, looking like a model in a women’s magazine. Next she is Marion, an older lady and the frustrated wife of the irrepressible Roy. Then she turns up as socialite Nancy, a sleek and stylish mystery lady who has just been dumped by her companion. As Esther McAlister, an aging Southern belle whose lively attitude makes her a perfect match for her fun-loving husband, she is trying to adjust to the culture shock of moving North across the Mason-Dixon Line. And as working-musician and personal friend Judith, she becomes a thin, tense and tightly wound redhead. She is beautiful in every role.
But it is Joel Bryant who knocks us out with his five male characters. His transformation from one role to the next is so complete that he is unrecognizable every time he comes through the door. He starts us off with an astonishing portrayal of a philosophy professor desperately trying to quit smoking. Then he transmogrifies into Roy, the cranky but feisty old bird driving his wife nuts. Next he changes into Duane, a nerdy computer whiz whose crackling internal energy (watch his blood pressure!) is about one minute away from a massive explosion. Then he switches to become Ted McAlister, an outgoing silver fox from the South with a charming interest in his fellow man and a sweet sort of breezy innocence. Last, he becomes Walt, a squash-obsessed Bostonian who is the loyal best friend of Austin, in a performance so completely realized that you will swear you know this guy. It is amazing work by Joel Bryant; I predict awards.
Let’s talk about the gorgeous set, another triumph from CV Rep’s award-winning resident set designer, Jimmy Cuomo. The beautiful, sophisticated decor sets us up for a fancy party overlooking Boston’s famous harbor, with the city’s tall buildings as a backdrop. The open stage features a patio with one door leading back into the house. Coming from there, we hear muted sounds of music and chatter; kudos to sound designer Terence Davis for keeping the background noise at the appropriate level where it’s heard, but does not not interfere with these conversations. Not easy—but the balance is excellent. Karen Goodwin, the assistant stage manager and sound tech, shares in these finely tuned choices. The clever contributions of stage manager and lighting designer Moira Wilkie Whitaker are perfectly correct for this play, as are Aalsa Lee’s 1993-era costumes, reminding us of the colors and styles worn “way back” then. Production manager and associate designer Doug Morris contributed his talents and keen eyes to this show, while the incomparable Lynda Shaeps designed the makeup and hair styles; wait until you see her amazing work that transforms the character actors. Selene Rodriguez assists with Shaeps’ hair and makeup effects with great results.
Ron Celona’s production of this “dramedy” could not be better. It shows a huge amount of thought, and fascinating results. You will never see anything else like it—so make sure you do see it!
Later Life is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 21, at Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.