Better Late by Larry Gelbart. Directed by Phil Rice.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"There comes a time when you turn the car key off in your head."
Joan Coombs and John W. Noble; photo provided
When you steal a man’s wife, and son, away from him he rarely ends up living with you for a year. Yet that is the core of the plot of this dark comedy by the author of "M.A.S.H." and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Originally produced at Northlight Theater in Chicago, IL on April 2, 2008, for a six-week run it was subsequently see at the Galway Arts Festival in Ireland. Gelbart, who died in 2009, presumably based this play on his own life experience. His wife, actress Pat Marshall, had children by a previous husband and the story here takes that into a deep consideration.
At the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, New York, a fine quartet of actors play out this final phase of Gelbart’s life and career. Lee and Nora Baer are played by Michael F. Hayes and Joan Coombs. Nora’s first husband Julian Cowan is played by John W. Noble and their son Billy Cowan is played by Sean Riley. Gelbart, known as one of the finest comedy writers of his day (he was one of the famous writers for Sid Caesar’s television show along with Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and others) has given us a serious comedy with wonderful laugh lines, all the pathos of an Arthur Miller play and the serious humor of a contemporary writer who cannot leave the good things alone but who must offer the worst in human nature at the same time.
Easy points to take: the son is getting a divorce which hurts his step-father who sees the younger man through idealistic eyes; the woman who has been the wife of two men cannot restrain herself from trying to be the one person in both their lives; each of the men who married her still believe that the other man has been his enemy for twenty-five years when, in truth, neither one has really given much thought about the other.
Hard points to take: sympathy from a former wife can result in cohabitation for more than a few days. "Are we a couple or a thrupple?" Lee asks at one point; one death solves a quarter century of confusion.
Gelbart does not make it easy here. His people are complex and are not symbolic of a situation; they are fully flesh and blood and confusion is their normal state for a long time. Given that as a baseline situation, the actors and the director are handed a challenge that is greater than most: how to play these people and their dilemma. Are you comic and silly and farcical in a mood piece that demands honesty or are you honest and straightforward in the comic playwright’s darkest moments?
Director Rice has not settled on one or the other but has attempted to be the arbiter of what is witty in truthful statements made by dishonest people who cannot completely deal with what they have been dealt. This is a most difficult route to take and his actors do everything they can to make this work. The resultant presentation is one that leaves you thinking about how hard are human relations and how unrewarding it is to sustain a relationship with someone who has been literally stolen from someone else who cannot move on. This is a thought-provoking piece on every level and not a silly comedy. It is a challenge to the audience as it is a challenge to the actors. It certainly gets autumn off to a rocky and somber start.
Joan Coombs is something of a tight-rope walker in the role of Nora. The character is demanding and controlling and from the outset the person in charge of other people’s lives. Nora has to be likeable in spite of domineering nature and Coombs manages that aspect of her smartly. She brings charm to difficult moments and a strict need of obedience to the balance of her interpretation. Her Nora treads the fine line between likeable and detestable and with outstretched arms she touches each of those qualities from time to time. This ensemble play has no star role and yet Coombs and Gelbart together have made Nora into the leading character.
Equally strong, equally self-centered are the two husbands. John W. Noble as the deserted first husband, Julian, has to play a loner who clings to the emotionally misanthropic self he was during his marriage. He has never been able to give up the notion that she, or they, done him wrong. Bitterness erupts out of him from time to time though humor saves the day more than once. Noble has these subtleties in his voice and his posture and his in-and-out of focus style of playing allows him to express more than one emotion at the same time. He plays the physical deterioration of a man with an almost sublime reality while gaining strength and command verbally and emotionally as his body begins to crumble away from him. It is wonderful work.
Michael F. Hayes is exactly Noble’s opposite. He uses isolation to maintain his sense of power and control in a situation that would cripple a weaker man. Here Gelbart is painting some sort of self-portrait and Hayes is given the task of providing a route into the mind of the author. In many ways the second act of the play is Hayes’ property as he deals with Nora’s need to control her men, including her son. Lee is drawn into her sensual web and Hayes plays this with an intensity that is not seen in the first half of the play. His need to sustain the illusion of perfect existence as a loner is played out in the second scene of the act with such brilliance that when he is drawn back into the emotional morass that he himself has created in years past the actor completely slips away into the character and it really does feel as though we are eavesdroppers and not audience.
Sean Riley has the unfair and risky role of the son, Billy. His minutes on stage are fewer than those of the uber-adults and yet he draws a fine and emotional picture as the son of two fathers, the son of a mother pulled out of a Greek tragedy to play an immortal Goddess of confusion. Riley takes it in stride under Rice’s fine directorial hand and brings tears to our eyes in the last scene of the play.
A strong and simple physical production, deceptively simple I should say, created by Abe and Allen Phelps as set and lighting designers with appropriately straightforward costumes by Logane Robinson surround the actors who give a comfortable reality to boxes, bringing a Los Angeles, California sense to the play’s trappings.
A hard comedy with sad and happy endings played out simultaneously, a few marvelous Gelbartian laugh lines, and a very talented collective of artists, this is a step-off of a season that was generously ingratiating at the Theater Barn. I’d say "do not miss this" but such a personal, dry, emotional experience may not be for everyone. Of course how will you know if you don’t go and see how it touches you personally. Another dilemma only you can solve.
John W. Noble and Michael F. Hayes; photo provided
Better Late plays through September 22 at the Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY. For information and tickets call 518-794-8989 or go on line at www.theaterbarn.com.