Better Late/ Theater Barn/ New Lebanon
“M.A.S.H.,” “Tootsie,” “Oh God.” Yeah, anything by Larry Gelbart is bound to have fast, snarky, laugh-a-minute-wit, no?
Well, maybe no. Better Late does have doses of vintage witty Gelbart, but it has the feel of the deeply personal–of perhaps autobiography, and lessons learned in the later part of life. Thank goodness for “the later part of life.” (Don’t you tire of the drama and film addiction to our twenties, thirties, and well-preserved forties? Please, dear playwrights. Give us more intriguing ten-year olds and complex eighty-year-olds!)
This plot involves three oldsters in Beverly Hills. They include a prosperous, happily married entertainment-industry couple and the woman’s very ill first husband. The wife maneuvers her first husband into a “temporary” stay in her home while he sells his condo to finance assisted-living arrangements for himself. There is also a troubled son from the first marriage.
Entering the Theater Barn, one is immediately captivated by a clean, minimalist stage, dotted with a few boxes and a screen hanging above it. Best of all, coloring the simple scene, is a blue-gray-mauve-raspberry-lit backdrop. Abe Phelps made the set. His son Allen E. Phelps lit it. Nice.
The hanging projection screen reveals changing locations, and the boxes on the stage are moved about to suggest a car, a dressing table, a sofa, etc. (Supposedly, Gelbart urged some such simplicity.)
Sometimes director Phil Rice overdoes the minimalism. The opening scene has the married couple before their boxy dressers, attending to last minute details of self-garniture. Even though the characters are late for a theater performance, the actors diddle and dawdle with too few props to cover the dialogue and many illogically repetitious actions. The contradiction draws attention away from important background information.
Later in the play, the actors deal with minimal movement. Too often they are left standing in one place for long stretches of dialogue.
There are a couple of excellent actors in this production. Michael F. Hayes is vivid as Lee, the handsome, dapper, surprisingly patient second husband. John W. Noble is the health-impaired man-who-came-to-too-many-dinners. His second-act confessional scene is especially impressive and touching, and he manages to tilt Joan Coombs into some of her better work of the evening.
Coombs, as the beloved wife of two good men, seems miscast. While watching her, this watcher kept “casting” about for a more sophisticated, charming approach to the character. A bit more adagio in her delivery of lines wouldn’t hurt either.
As her son from the first marriage, Sean Riley at first seems like someone 32 going on 5. He becomes more believable and sympathetic as the play moves on.
In this plot, honesty seems to be the well-worn “better late than never” factor. But, more important, it says that some kinds of love may simply be “better late.”
This is Theater Barn’s final production of the 2013 season. They’ve been around for 30 years! (Get tickets for Better Late at 518 794-8989.) I am looking forward to the 31st season, expecting once again to enjoy, appreciate, and sometimes carp.