BWW Review: CV Rep's LATER LIFE is an Engaging Play, Expertly Presented
Coachella Valley Repertory (CVRep) is currently presenting an engaging production of A.R. Gurney's one-act dramedy, LATER LIFE, directed by theatre veteran Luke Yankee, making his CVRep debut. All four cast members, each of whom has an impressive list of credits, are a pleasure to watch, as they expertly use their voices, bodies, and faces to pull us into their characters' stories. Two of the actors play numerous characters, and make each one seem unique. One performer blushes during an awkward moment; I cannot recall ever before having seen an actor manage to blush when his or her character is embarrassed. The only performance choice with which I disagree is that the Boston Brahmin character speaks without a regional dialect - surely, someone whose wealthy family has lived in Boston for generations would speak with a noticeable Boston accent.
Although theatergoers of any age would enjoy the play, it focuses on fifty and sixty-somethings. As such its theme - whether it is ever too late to change one's life - especially resonates with me, a retired attorney who has gone back to school to become an actor. The story proceeds much as a mystery would. A dinner party hostess (Teri Bibb, best known to audiences as Christine in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), introduces an out-of-town visitor, Ruth (Barbara Niles, another Broadway musical theatre veteran), to Austin (William Fair, whose resume is equally hefty), a banker who comes from old Boston money. Ruth realizes that Austin is the man with whom she had a brief romantic encounter in Italy many years ago, when he was a young Naval officer and she was traveling with a group of friends after college. Although he, at first, does not remember her, she has never forgotten him, and appears to regret that the relationship did not progress. Both of them are interested in picking up where they left off, but are also concerned about jumping into a romance after their failed marriages. While they sit on the balcony getting to know each other again, some very quirky people (all played by Ms. Bibb and the chameleon-like stage and screen actor Joel Bryant) wander in and out, interrupting the conversation and providing much of the play's sophisticated humor. I was apparently not the only one impressed with Mr. Bryant's and Ms. Bibb's versatility; a lady sitting behind me wondered aloud why only four actors, instead of the entire cast, came out for the curtain calls.
Playwright Gurney reveals a key tidbit here and there about the trajectories of Ruth's and Austin's lives. The aptly named Mr. Yankee increases the play's built-in suspense by ensuring that the action moves almost in slow motion at the end, when a character stands uncertainly, holding a prop. The wait is agonizing while the character ruminates silently about which of two courses of action to choose; it felt as if the audience was holding its collective breath as to whether the ending would be happy or sad. The lights go down within a few seconds of the character's decision.
Broadway World readers must get tired of my gushing over Jimmy Cuomo's set designs. (He is assisted by Doug Morris). As usual, his beautifully decorated set allows the audience members to learn about the characters and their environment before the play starts. In this case, the balcony on which the action takes place is part of a high-end condo that overlooks Boston Harbor. Towards the back, we see a stylized version of familiar Boston landmarks on a lighted screen. The expensive outdoor furniture is durable and solid, a metaphor for Austin and his life. The foyer that leads back into the apartment contains a traditional chest and painting. Everything is decorated with exquisite, old-money taste; Austin and his Boston friends would shudder at the idea of Palm Springs mid-century modern decor.
The other members of the artistic team also triumph in their respective areas. The lighting (by Moira Wilkie Whitaker) and sound (designed by Terence Davis, with Karen Goodwin as sound technician) evoke the setting of a sedate, but enjoyable evening party. The occasional blare of foghorns in the distance reminds the audience that the harbor is nearby. There is one choice involving the sound with which I disagree, specifically, to run soft, continuous party music in the background for almost the entire play. Just as the occasional bursts of laughter serve as a reminder that a party is taking place, occasional bits of music would have done the same thing. I found the nonstop music to be intrusive; in some instances, it even made the dialogue hard to hear. However, once again, I emphasize that this is a choice with which I disagree, rather than a flaw.
The costume designer (Aalsa Lee) and the hair and makeup designer (Lynda Shaeps, assisted by Selene Rodriguez) are the unsung workhorses of CVRep, because, for most productions, they don't get to show off their considerable abilities to produce imaginative designs. [Disclosure: Ms. Shaeps is one of my future instructors at College of the Desert, and Ms. Rodriguez turned me into a realistic-looking Vulcan for a theatre department fundraiser.] Thanks to the number of characters that Ms. Bibb and Mr. Bryant play in LATER LIFE, Ms. Lee, Ms. Shaeps, and Ms. Rodriguez have their opportunity in the spotlight, and they make the most of it. Mr. Bryant's long-haired, rumpled, chain-smoking, disgraced college professor and Mr. Bryant's and Ms. Bibb's shameless Southern couple are my personal favorites.
LATER LIFE is well worth seeing. There is nothing in it that is likely to offend most theatergoers, although there are sad moments. I highly recommend this production.
LATER LIFE will run through May 21, 2017. CVRep's 2016-17 runs are now four weeks long instead of three, and now include some Tuesday evening performances and an additional Saturday matinee. Evening shows start at 7:30 pm, and matinees (Sat. & Sun.) start at 2:00 pm. Ticket prices are $48.
CVRep has announced a robust summer schedule. For more information, see the Web site, at www.cvrep.org/summer-cvrep/ .
CVRep is located in The Atrium, at 69-930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets for individual shows can be purchased by telephone at 760-296-2966; online at www.cvrep.org/tickets/; or in person at the box office. Box office hours are Mon-Fri 10:30-2:30 and two hours prior to each performance.
CVRep, a 501(c)(3) organization, is the only theatre in the Coachella Valley that has Small Professional Theatre status with Actors' Equity. As well as presenting its main stage productions, CVRep operates a conservatory and a children's program. CVRep is currently raising funds through a $6-million capital campaign to purchase the IMAX theater in Cathedral City, at the corner of Route 111 and Cathedral Canyon Boulevard, and to construct a 200-seat, modern theatrical venue on the site.
To contribute for CVRep's annual operations, or to contribute to the capital campaign, please contact:
Barbara Wolser, Director of Development
(760) 296-2966 ext 103
PHOTO CREDIT: Jim Cox