His version of the character is upright, forthright and transparent almost to the point of invisibility. Similarly, the revival in which he appears, directed by Jonathan Silverstein, is most notable for its lucidity. It’s a gentle production that lets Gurney speak for himself, without flashy interpretive obstructions.
While this approach may not make for thrilling theater, it does allow you to see Gurney plain. And I came away from this production with new respect for “Later Life,” which now seems to me one of his most eloquent statements on an archetype that hears the chimes at midnight almost from the moment of birth.
The plot of this 90-minute work functions as a sort of lab experiment for our dubious hero. Austin goes to a party at a friend’s house and is introduced to a woman named Ruth (a down-to-earth Barbara Garrick), who tells him they have met before, when he was stationed with the Navy in Italy several decades earlier.
Guided to the quiet of the terrace by their host (the al fresco set is by Steven Kemp, with autumnal lighting by David Lander), Austin and Ruth become increasingly attracted to each other. Our almost-lovers’ conversation is periodically interrupted by an assortment of other guests (all appealingly embodied by Jodie Markell and Liam Craig, in quick-change mode). These intruders are, like Austin and Ruth, in their late middle age. And they wonder, via subjects that range from quitting smoking to moving house, how much they are still capable of change.
Gurney lets us know he is putting Austin’s adaptability to the test from the very beginning. “I’m setting the stage here,” says Sally (Ms. Markell), the party’s host, in the play’s opening lines, as she arranges a terrace table for two. “That’s all I can do. Just set the stage.”
Enter Ruth, attractive and newly separated, and a reminder of the many roads Austin has never taken. She hasn’t been able to stop thinking about him since their brief first encounter, she tells him, mostly because of his assertion as a young man that his life, even then, was a process of “waiting for something terrible to happen.”
In prefatory notes for “Later Life,” Gurney thanks the great American novelist Henry James. And this play seems to be a variation of sorts on James’s novella “The Beast in the Jungle” (which, by the way, has been newly adapted in a play with music that opens in May at the Vineyard Theater).
If you know the plot of James’s “Beast,” you know how things will turn out. That “Later Life” still engages us has to do with how carefully the script allows its hero the chance to break his stasis. But Austin just can’t rise to the opportunity. Gurney has created this paradoxical loser of a born winner — a man whom life has blessed with creature comforts and stability — with equal compassion and exasperation.
This production doesn’t ultimately provide the emotional payoff we were hoping for, but it reminds us of what a craftsman Gurney was, and how many rueful shades of warmth he could find in frozen lives. Mr. Lau’s performance provides just enough hopeful signals of melting for us to feel the bona fide tragedy of a man — and a class — doomed to extinction.