Playwright: Larry Gelbart and Craig Wright
At: Northlight Theatre at the
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts,
9501 N. Skokie, Skokie
Phone: 847-673-6300; $35-$55
Runs through: May 11
The publicity for Better Late promotes the impression that it's a 'grumpy old men' comedy: Hasn't it got a plot dealing with geriatric issues? Isn't it written by veteran chortlemeister Larry Gelbart, the wordsmith behind M*A*S*H, Tootsie and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum? And doesn't it feature the dream-team combination of John Mahoney and Mike Nussbaum in the lead roles? What is largely overlooked in all the hoopla is the influence of co-author Craig Wright, one of the most introspectively gloomy playwrights since Samuel Beckett, despite being, himself, several years shy of qualification for AARP membership.
So though the play's premise would serve adequately to pilot a successful television series—a wife insists on caring for her ex-husband during his convalescence after a stroke, leading to repercussions affecting her relationship with her current spouse and a son facing his own midlife crisis—this is not merely a retread of The Odd Couple for the gray-hair set. The experience of slipping through the Grim Reaper's grasp has a way of reminding not only the person reprieved, but the surrounding parties as well, of their limited time on this earth, and—more important—how they intend to occupy themselves for what remains of its duration.
So beneath the easy humor at the expense of Los Angeles culture, kvetchy marital quibbles, and grown men who still behave like little boys, there are very serious matters to be ignored, postponed and confronted—not sequentially, but simultaneously, with tonal transitions occurring mid-conversation, sometimes almost mid-sentence. Bringing this off requires not only performers with impeccable elder-cred, but interpretive skills capable of conveying ( as acting students will attest ) this most elusive of life's stages.
So this Northlight production is lucky to have in its cast, in addition to the aforementioned Nussbaum and Mahoney ( both comprising evidence to refute popular misconceptions regarding deterioration of memory ) , the inestimable Linda Kimbrough as the fussy Nora, flanked by Steve Key as her harried progeny. Under the capable guidance of likewise seasoned director BJ Jones, Better Late exceeds our expectations, emerging an intelligent contemplation of choices and consequences to engage audiences of all ages.