When a man lives under a cloud of fear, forever expecting a deluge, he may not notice that he's already soaked to the skin and trembling. In the caustic comedy-drama Later Life, now in a superb production at the Avenue Theater, playwright A.R. Gurney masterfully reveals how fear has affected one man's ability to love.

The tale is a variation on Henry James's story The Beast in the Jungle, in which a man spends his whole life waiting for "something great"--and too late realizes that the something great was the woman who was waiting with him and is now lost. The hero of Later Life waits as well, but for a nebulous black doom.

Gurney uses New England's decorous Puritan heritage as the basic metaphor for his lead character's plight. A Harvard graduate born and bred in Boston, Austin is the epitome of the contemporary Puritan, fearing he may not be one of the chosen few elected to paradise but instead will be condemned with the masses to outer darkness.

Director Pamela Clifton seeks out the right action to suit every turn of events, and her comic timing is needle-sharp in what is surely one of Gurney's best and most bittersweet plays. It's a terrific ensemble piece for the right actors--and the Avenue has all the right actors.

John Ashton has reached a new level in his long career: His performance as the damned and delightful Austin anchors the whole mad wit of the play in reality. He has made a sympathetic portrait of a good man whose wait for his own doom, though poignant, is also funny. Ashton could have chosen to make Austin cold and stiff--but then we wouldn't have cared whether he ultimately was saved.

The story unfolds during a big party on the rooftop terrace at the home of Austin's friend Sally. The hostess has set up the recently divorced Austin with the lovely, if epically screwed-up, Ruth (played with sensitive intelligence by Heidi Olson), and the two spark through the whole play. It seems Ruth and Austin met many years previous when Austin was still in the Navy. Ruth remembers, but Austin doesn't, so she teases and coaxes his memory until he recalls their brief, youthful tryst.

Other guests roam on and off the patio, raising numerous human issues as they do. All of these characters are played by Beth Flynn and Duane Black--as perfectly matched a set of comic virtuosos as one could hope to find. One of the chief delights of the production lies in looking under their changing wigs to re-recognize them again and again.

The first of these characters is Jim, a handsome, pony-tailed philosophy professor who seeks refuge on the patio for a forbidden cigarette--which he never smokes. Via a long, lyrical paean to the pleasures of smoking, he builds a delightful character whose struggle against a habit he enjoys so much is vastly amusing and touching. The profound grief Jim feels over his tragic secret, revealed only at the end of the play, stands in stark contrast to Austin's stoic inability to feel.

Also taking their turns on the terrace are an old couple in leisure polyester, a computer nerd, a slightly drunk, slightly abrasive lesbian, a Southern couple with an insatiable curiosity about everyone around them, and a strident but sweet feminist. Each has a genuine function in the story.

Gurney likes these people--he understands their idiosyncrasies, their debilitating anxieties and their conflicting desires for relationships and tranquility. We like them, too, no matter how foolish or troubled they are. And we care for Austin, even if the poor dope has feared the wrong beast in his private jungle and outer darkness is already closing in.


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