Love shifts a bit as you age. Rather than a mad jump into the unknown driven by lust and adventure, the journey becomes a more measured business decision modulated by the knowledge of what exactly can go wrong.
That metamorphosis is brought to life in Mad Cow Theatre's production of A.R. Gurney's 1993 Later Life, a romantic comedy that takes place over the course of a single cocktail party. Polite and formal Austin (David Chernault) embodies the Boston Brahmin banker: confident, superior, yet self-deprecating. He's already loved and lost, but party hostess Sally (Jamie Middleton) sets him up with a possible replacement. The tall and coolly elegant Ruth (Shelly Burch) arrives in an impossibly slimming sequined dress, on the lam from her potentially abusive husband.
The kicker? Ruth and Austin met on the Isle of Capri years ago, but the meeting has slipped Austin's mind since he refused her offer of her honor. Still, it's like at first sight, and Austin eventually realizes that Ruth has charms he missed 20 years ago. Both have equivalent baggage from the past; thus, a merger is possible.
Comic interludes with other partygoers punctuate this otherwise academic analysis of delayed love. All of the interlopers are played by the same two supporting actors, Middleton and Russell Warner. Warner first appears as Jim, a man about to give up smoking one last time. He, like Austin, is torn between social acceptance and personal pleasure, and eventually capitulates, giving in and lighting up. Warner next shows up with Middleton as an old couple torn between moving to Florida to escape winter and hanging out with their grandkids. It's a toss-up safety with mild discomfort, or vast change and isolation from the past.
Middleton resurfaces as Nancy, a bitchy lesbian whose date abandons her for the buffet and some fun talk a sly jab at couples who split out of boredom and control issues. Occasionally, drunk geek Duane (Warner) appears at a window offering unwanted computer advice. His own relationship has faded to the mutual help-line level: His wife will stick around as long as the equipment runs correctly. Finally, we have expatriate Texans Ted and Esther. Nice to a fault, they live their lives vicariously through others. Tell us YOUR story, they beg; it's enough to keep them going.
Is there a Big Point here? Not really, but we get a cubist look at some of the possible positive relations between a man and a woman. Chernault's Austin comes across as stiffly formal but personable. You feel his loss when things don't work out, even though he had no inkling change was possible. Burch's Ruth begins as a bit of a tease, and while she, too, is drawn to him, her prior bonds pull her back when the string is jerked. We are surprised: If this is a comedy, doesn't that mean that boy gets girl? Not necessarily in this postmodern era. Maybe we'll have to settle for the antics of the supporting cast, which overcome any sadness we might harbor for the main relation.
Jason Young's set is amazing; it creates a sense of spaciousness that completely belies the tight room the performers have to work with. The story's romance occurs on a balcony overlooking Boston Harbor, and there is a true sense of room for all these people to wander about under the excellent direction of Broadway veteran Martin Charnin. Even the odd spatial arrangement of Mad Cow's Stage Left space doesn't mar the show. We simply feel as if we are watching a party in the next apartment over, grateful for the entertainment yet not really involved in the details. Voyeurism takes many forms, and here we have it at its best: We see people emotionally naked, but not otherwise. And that's all we need.