There is an unsettling quality to the laughter -- luckily, quite a bit of it -- in the WaterTower Theatre's regional premiere of Golf With Alan Shepard. Separation, the burden of memory, and the loneliness that too often descends on the aged are bound to rattle the nerves of anyone younger who begins to ask themselves, "How will I live at the end of my life when the people closest to me are gone?" Perhaps there's a nervous tune to the chuckling, but being intimately confronted with uncomfortable, seemingly incontrovertible realities isn't the entire explanation here. Luckily, director Terry Martin was hip to the queasy sense in Carter W. Lewis' script of being decentered -- having to give up the seat you've been comfortable in for decades now to wander in an unknown direction. Death gets a bad rap, according to one character here, because of its "unspecific itinerary."
On the golf course of a hotly contested game among four retired but not retiring friends, we are wandering in an unspecified land that feels like life lived too long. These old men are fumbling to find a reason to pay more attention to the world around them than to the dead who haunt them (sometimes literally) between swings. That wasteful pursuit seems to occupy so much of their time that Jarrett Bertoncin's lunar-barren golf course feels vaguely unfriendly, without the distractions of anyone or anything but their own longing.
A couple of the performances in WaterTower Theatre's show don't feel up to the play's best moments of remorseless comic philosophizing, but Martin has nonetheless prepared the actors to give in and let the dialogue take center stage. When it's delivered with the gentle and utterly convincing gravity of Grant James as Larkin, a flask-sipping former priest who gave up God for a teenage waitress, then Golf With Alan Shepard keeps us tuned in to the mordant proceedings. James isn't folksy as he offers bits of (mostly unrequested) guidance to the others; he's resigned to a life of spiritual disappointment and trying to scrape up all the wisdom he can from it. Unfortunately, the other actors aren't as seamless in their roles -- Donald Berger as Ned, for instance, has the space-case affability to illuminate some of the best lines (when asked why he keeps making disparaging references to the state of Indiana, Ned replies: "I don't know. Something about Indiana just pisses me off.") but can't convey satisfying sorrow when he sees the apparition of his late, beloved wife.
Although playwright Lewis makes his only big mistake by wedging in a cameo from the titular former astronaut, an inexplicable and not particularly honest pitch by the NASA celebrity for acceptance and contentment with the order of all things, Golf With Alan Shepard is really rather bleak stuff, especially for an audience the size that WaterTower attracts -- think along the lines of I'm Not Rappaport, albeit much more clever and playful with its own nastiness. The dryness of the humor keeps your tongue raw to taste the question of existence all over again, what thinkers who have written about slavery and genocide and AIDS -- "What do we gain from loss?" -- are trying to answer. Carter W. Lewis, and WaterTower Theatre, have just homespun that question by making grumpy old men in golf caps grope for it.
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