NEW LEBANON, N.Y. -- The dinner-theater-sounding premise of Larry Gelbart’s comedy "Better Late" is simple enough -- a seventysomething man recuperating from a sudden life-threatening illness moves in with his ex-wife and her husband and complications ensue.
Had the play -- which is being given uncertain treatment at The Theater Barn -- been written by a lesser talent than Gelbart, you could pretty much figure how this scenario will play out.
But "Better Late" was written by the man who gave us, among other works, "MASH," "Tootsie," "City of Angels" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and so the stakes are higher, the resonances deeper.
Premiered at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Ill., in March/April 2008, "Better Late," which is co-authored by Craig Wright, is the last complete play Gelbart wrote before his death of cancer on Sept. 11, 2009.
Gelbart was not diagnosed with cancer until roughly four months before his death but mortality clearly is on his mind in "Better Late," a play that has both an autumnal feel and a sense of renewal, of starting again.
It is clear from the outset that there is an underlying tension beneath the badinage between Lee Baer (Michael F. Hayes), a film composer, and his wife, Nora (Joan Coombs), a retired actress, as they prepare to go out to the opening night of play featuring an actress with whom Lee once had an affair. The affair is long since over but the betrayal still runs deep in Nora, who cheated on her husband, Julian, with Lee for two years before finally divorcing Julian to marry Lee. When Julian (John W. Noble) becomes seriously ill, Nora insists on taking him in. It’s not an easy situation for either Lee, who finds his position undermined, or for Julian, who holds unspent resentment toward Lee for having stolen Nora.
This living situation the controlling Nora has forced upon Lee exacerbates the creative block that has kept him from completing an elegy for which he has received a grant. To add to it, his adult stepson, Billy (cleanly and convincingly played by Sean Riley, particularly in a moving scene with Hayes at the opening of the second act) is having marital problems of his own.
The playing here, especially in the first act, is choppy and hesitant. Moreover, Gelbart’s delicately poised style proves elusive, as if neither the actors nor director Phil Rice quite know what tone to strike or when.
"Better late than never" the saying goes. Here, late never comes.