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Bittersweet Later Life has something for evryone

Later Life

New Repertory Theatre,

54 Lincoln St., Newton Highlands.

Written by A. R. Gurney.

Directed by Michael Allosso.

Through May 28.

By Hur Koser
Staff Reporter

Aterrace overlooking the Boston Harbor, two simple chairs next to a small table, and an even plainer chaise lounge on the side and a blue sheet on the background that turns darker and reveals occasional stars as the night falls in - the scenery for Later Life is quite modest indeed, as is the play itself. Roughly a dozen characters appear in the play; ten are played by two actors only.

Austin (Cyrus Newitt), a prototypical stoic banker type in his late fifties, is reintroduced to Ruth (Etain O'Malley), a warm-hearted multiple divorce. They first met some thirty years ago off the bay of Naples on the Isle of Capri, where they made their first try at romance. Ruth gradually reminds Austin how he - an attractive Navy sailor then - separated her from the "mob," talked for hours beside a magnificent moonlit view of the Mediterrenean, and finally, kissed her deeply.

However, it seems that Austin refused young Ruth's invitation to her room, saying that he feared a "terrible thing" would happen to him, and that he did not want Ruth to possibly share in his suffering. Confused, Ruth did not inquire further. Nevertheless, since then, she has wondered what that "terrible thing" could be, and whether it actually happened to Austin within the course of those thirty years.

To her surprise, Austin is pretty confident that nothing terrible has happened to him yet. Even his recent divorce appears to be a happy turning point for him. At least he wishes that were true, though Ruth's intimacy encourages him to confess some unpleasant details. The end that follows is somewhat obscure, yet anticipated, confirming that Later Life is indeed a bittersweet, rather than simply sweet, comedy.

In director Michael Allosso's own interpretation, this romantic comedy explores whether it is better to lead a life of summits and valleys, or one that is regular, safe and predictable. Allosso remarks that "Characters, vibrant in their resiliency and their commitment to change, circle around the play's protagonist, Austin, who is standing at his life's precipice." It seems that when Allosso first saw Later Life off-Broadway, he was quickly mesmerized by the simplicity, warmth and humanity of the play; it was a play he not only wanted, but also needed to direct. And in his own direction of Later Life in New Repertory Theatre, he does a good job indeed.

The author of the play is a former MIT professor: Albert Ramsdell "Pete" Gurney taught literature at the Institute for more than 25 years. Gurney has written a large collection of plays - mostly during summer vacations and sabbaticals - and for most of them, his own life has been the greatest source of inspiration. "I wrote The Dining Room after we had given up our own dining room and turned it into a family room," Gurney said. "We all huddled together and ate in the kitchen. I realized what we'd lost, so I tried to write my way back into that world." His famous play Love Letters evolved in a similar manner; it is therefore quite logical to assume that Later Life bears many fingerprints of Gurney's own experiences in Boston over several decades.

His existence in the body of the play is apparent in at least two main elements: in Austin, as the native Bostonian, and in the thirteenth character, the city of Boston itself. The description of the "marvelous view" of the Boston Harbor, as interpreted by different individuals from the same terrace, as well as certain details about the city's landmarks, reveal Gurney's affinity toward this city. Indeed, Boston is praised, through the words of the numerous characters, as "the most civilized city of America", and "the Athens of the modern world"; an old lady even wishes to take her last breath in Boston. Allosso is aware of this predominant affliction: "How fortunate it is to be able to direct this play about Boston in Boston, an old city laced with tradition, which has adapted gracefully to modern life and times."

It is apparent that Allosso is also fortunate to be working with a competent cast. The play is based entirely on a slow conversation between Austin and Ruth, with frequent interruptions by other men (all played by Charles Broderick) and women (all by M. Lynda Robinson). With a less skilled cast and a negligent director, it might have all boiled down to a soap opera. Broderick and Robinson deserve additional praise for their excellent job in their personality transformations throughout the play. Especially worth seeing is the former philosophy teacher (a reflection upon Gurney's own career of teaching?), characterized by Broderick, who desperately tries to give up smoking.

The 150-seat facility in the New Repertory Theatre is perfectly suited for this cozy, one-act play, which will be the concluding piece in their tenth season. Later Life promises something for everyone; do not miss it especially if you are one of those who seek the true meaning of love.