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Harry Townsend's Last Stand

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - December 4, 2019

Len Cariou and Craig Bierko
Photo by Maria Baranova
Harry Townsend's Last Stand, George Eastman's comedy-drama at City Center Stage II, is a genre piece. That is to say, once you know the characters and where they are and what their situation is, you can largely figure out where it's headed. If that sounds like a disparagement, it's a faint one—as a genre piece, Harry Townsend's Last Stand is well-produced, humorous, and occasionally moving. Still, Eastman's trudging down a well-traveled path.

We're in Vermont in the spring, in a comfy, rather worn little chalet by the lake. Lauren Halpern's set is admirably detailed, from the crossed skis on the wall to the green kitchen cabinets with a few too many coats of paint to the furniture that looks like it's been around quite a while. There, our title character (Len Cariou) putters around reasonably happily, surrounded by nature, his unseen daughter who lives nearby and attends to him daily, and sweet memories. A long-retired radio announcer—"the voice of the [Hudson] Valley," he proudly recalls—Harry is embittered only by the loss some years ago of his wife, who does sound like she was one terrific lady, and the ravages of being nearly 85, which Eastman will be dwelling on for the duration.

Harry smiles a lot and likes to make jokes, mostly dirty ones, and age hasn't diminished his spunk. Into this demi-paradise wanders his son Alan (Craig Bierko). Alan is ... well, we don't get to know Alan as well as we might. A successful realtor visiting for the weekend from San Diego, divorced but with a steady girlfriend, he seems a decent sort. But he doesn't visit often, and we can smell the intergenerational conflicts that will pepper the father-and-son dynamics.

Alan's been getting not-quite-comprehensive reports from his twin sister about Harry's behavior, which is growing more and more erratic. While caring for Dad is an increasingly full-time occupation, she's too charmed by and protective of him to rat out to Alan how Harry is falling down a lot, drinking more scotch than he should, not remembering who is and isn't alive, and murmuring nonsense as he drifts off into his afternoon naps. He burned his arm badly while cooking, and he forgot that he stored the coffee pot in the oven. As Alan observes these deteriorations firsthand, he's more doubtful about Harry's ability to live alone, and that's essentially the sole conflict. Can Alan convince Dad it's time to retreat to the nearby assisted-living community, where, as will probably appeal to the still-randy Harry, the female-to-male ratio is 2:1? Or will the stubborn, ornery Harry insist on maintaining an increasingly fragile independence? What do you think?

With some frequency, Harry will start a line, pause, freeze, and work his way back to the beginning or stumble to the end. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Cariou in saying that it's hard to tell if he really can't quite remember what he's going to say, or if he's playing a guy who can't quite remember. Maybe he's thinking things through, or maybe director Karen Carpenter wanted to keep us guessing. Either way, it's an affecting portrayal of what time can do to one's faculties, and there's no ambiguity about Cariou's comic timing, which is as expert as ever. His body language is all there, too—watch him crumple when Alan relays a devastating piece of information.

Bierko, in a more reactive, less interesting part, is less interesting to watch. He does, however, ably convey the anguish of observing the gradual debilitation of a parent. We've been there, some of us, and if you can't identify with the conflicting strains of pride, concern, panic, and resolve that accompany the witnessing of the aging of an elder, well, just you wait. The two actors play well together, and when the arguments and truth-tellings and reconciliations arrive, right on schedule in Act Two, they make the most of them. The Manhattan Theatre Club audience, some of whom have clearly lived through such scenes, seemed moved by these painful, intimate encounters, and so was I.

The character definition is a little too on-the-nose. "You know what I wanted? I wanted to be you," Alan tells Harry, serving up practically his whole persona in a single line. "I was a dirty old man when I was 11, you're the prude," says Harry; we already knew that. Eastman's an efficient deployer of setups and punchlines, though, and if Harry Townsend's Last Stand often feels formulaic and predictable, that doesn't mean it isn't touching. Even when there's nothing else compelling going on, and that does happen, you can savor Cariou and recall how good he was in Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music and Applause and even, heaven help us, Dance a Little Closer. That's an evening's entertainment in itself.

Harry Townsend's Last Stand
Through February 9, 2020
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage II, 131 West 55th Street
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