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GroundWorks struggles with a comedy legend's problematic final work

Laughter in the Dark



The Mount Rushmore of Jewish-American comic genius would have to include Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Neil Simon, all three of whom have dominated stage and screen with their many well-known works. But you might also have to make room up there for . Best known for developing the landmark TV series M*A*S*H, Gelbart also co-authored the book for the hit Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and co-wrote the classic movie comedy Tootsie, besides contributing to many other successful projects. 

Alas, Gelbart, known as a one-liner laugh machine, passed away in 2009. His last hurrah as a creator occurred in 2008, when Chicago's well-respected Northlight Theatre world-premiered Better Late, a Gelbart play co-scripted by hot TV writer Craig Wright (Six Feet Under, Lost). Yet even with the excellent John Mahoney in the lead, the Chicago production received mostly mixed reviews, and the play's Nashville debut, produced by GroundWorks Theatre, finds equal difficulty in hiding the script's inconsistencies and overcoming its identity crisis.

Mature couple Nora, an ex-actress, and her successful composer husband Lee live in Beverly Hills. When Nora's ex-husband Julian, a car salesman in his early 70s, suffers a stroke, Nora gets it into her head to take him in and assist in nursing him back to health. (It's an untoward situation for Lee, naturally, but he makes the best of it.)

Then months and month go by and it looks like Julian's there to stay. Meanwhile, old wounds fester surrounding the breakup of Nora and Julian's marriage — also Nora's affair with Lee — and tensions rise to the point where Lee eventually moves out.

The story offers the stiff challenge of finding entertainment in its portrayals of people whose conversations often revolve around illnes, strokes, assisted living, dying, death and other issues of specific concern to their demographic. That gives rise to some restless black humor, but mostly the play straddles the fence awkwardly between sitcom and dark meditation on aging and the tough emotional realities of the past.

Director Melissa Williams gathers a cast of veteran community players, but their connection with the awkward jumble of sensitive moments and humor is strictly hit or miss. As Nora, Linda Speir captures some elements of the pampered, fitness-conscious, overly controlling SoCal matron. Ex-husband Julian is portrayed by Dave Thoreson, who makes an earnest effort to approximate the world-weariness of a post-stroke septuagenarian. Also on hand is Douglas Goodman, who offers a worthy supporting turn as Nora and Julian's son, Billy, undergoing marital woes of his own and, all these years later, still puzzling at his parents' behavior.

The central role of Lee is played by Rodney Pickel. His is a sincere reading, though he seems miscast as a (presumably) debonair aging Hollywood Lothario. Pickel's characterization simply has too many rough edges to achieve high credibility, and the play's talky, forced dialogue — especially in Act 2 — doesn't help. (That includes one really bad Katey Sagal joke.)

Nor does the set provide much verisimilitude. The 10 scenes move through various Los Angeles-area locales, but we get none of that ambience from the production's plain playing areas. We might as well be in Akron. Or Ashtabula.

Though we'd hate to reduce Better Late to the category of "Baby Boomer theater," that's unquestionably the theater-going crowd that will relate most directly to its cold, hard truths about growing older, its occasionally insightful (if sentimental) approach to failed relationships, and its ultimate melancholy-laced catharsis.

"Life is uncomfortable," says Lee in counseling Billy. Let Better Late serve as confirming evidence.

Hot flash

GroundWorks also recently announced that its next production, Menopause Maidens, will be presented at the Darkhorse Nov. 29-Dec. 6. The original script by company artistic director Myra Stephens is a sequel to her Fairy Tale Confidential, which was mounted in Nashville in 2004 at Bongo After Hours Theatre and pleased audiences with its playful psychological insights into the lives of Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. 


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