Two Comic Interludes

New play by A.R. Gurney, and Victoria Chaplin's `Invisible Circus'

LATER LIFE Play by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Don Scardino. At Playwrights Horizons.

THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS Performed by Victoria Chaplin and Jean Baptiste Thierree. At Union Square Theatre.

BOTH the playwright A.R. Gurney and the actor Charles Kimbrough have a great deal of career success exploring the repressive nature of the WASP aristocracy:

Gurney with such acclaimed plays as "The Dining Room" (in which Kimbrough appeared), "The Perfect Party," "The Cocktail Hour," and "Love Letters," and Kimbrough most prominently in his portrayal of Jim Dial, the veteran newsman on television's "Murphy Brown."

In Gurney's brief new one-act play, "Later Life," now appearing Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, the author and actor have created an indelible portrait of a man who is forced to confront the missed opportunities in his life.

Austin, a successful, divorced Boston banker, is confronted with his past during a cocktail party. This occurs in the form of Ruth (Maureen Anderman), another guest, with whom he enjoyed a romantic but chaste liaison more than 30 years ago, while he was a serviceman, on the island of Capri. Austin does not remember her, but she remembers him.

The two never consummated their flirtation because of Austin's feeling that something terrible would happen to him in his life.

According to him now, nothing ever did; even his divorce was the "best thing that could have happened." But during the course of the evening, as the couple rediscover their connection, Austin realizes what he had been missing. Ruth has not fared well either; she has lost a child and has been married four times.

This is not as melodramatic as it sounds due to the skillfulness of Gurney's writing and the light touch of the performers. Adding to the mirth is the fact that the would-be romantic duo are constantly interrupted by various guests from the party, all of them played by Carole Shelley and Anthony Heald, whose characterizations are a constant source of delight. Even if some of these creations tend toward stereotype (particularly Heald's computer nerd), they provide a refreshing respite from Kimbrough and A nderman's troubles.

Both Kimbrough and Anderman contribute moving performances, with Kimbrough particularly effective, displaying his character's stoic demeanor while making clear the desperation underneath. Anderman's Ruth is so quietly appealing that we, as well as Austin, feel the loss of their separation. The subtle touch of Director Don Scardino (also the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons) is perfectly suited to the play's quiet tone.

Gurney's writing has often proved facile and clever. Here, he provides real emotion as well. The final image is particularly haunting. This talented playwright's comic mode has deepened in later life.

THE Invisible Circus," playing at New York's Union Square Theatre, is the creation of Victoria Chaplin, whom the program notes coyly describe as having a father who "worked in the film industry," and her husband, Jean Baptiste Thierree.

The cast consists entirely of them, their son James Spencer (who bears an alarming resemblance to his grandfather), and assorted ducks, rabbits, and doves. It was preceded on these shores by "Le Cirque Imaginaire," which appeared here in 1986.

This oftentimes charming creation is less a circus than an elaborate act of the new vaudeville variety. It is a succession of sketches and skits, most of them brief, performed by the three stars separately and together. Thierree is the clown of the act; the comedian he brings most to mind is Harpo Marx, with his wide eyes, loopy grin, and mostly silent delivery. He does a combination of comedy and magic, definitely of the old-school variety, ranging from pulling objects out of hats, tricks with multicolo red scarves, and even levitation.

More entertaining are his corny sight gags. He'll enter dressed head to toe in a costume resembling a Renaissance painting, and then produce a series of props (including a peeled banana) with the same elaborate decor. Or he'll lip-sync to an opera recording, only to be joined in the singing by a pair of puppets on both knees. The material is hardly inspired, but his rapid-fire pace and comic enthusiasm are ultimately winning.

Chaplin's chief contribution is a series of visual puns, in which she transforms herself, through the aid of ingenious costumes and elaborate physical contortions, into a variety of worldly and otherworldly creatures.

Performed to atmospheric New Age music, what she does is much like the Swiss group Mummenschanz in its visual impact and charm. She is a physically adept and versatile performer, and her skills have been passed to her son James, who performs various segments in which he demonstrates his prowess at gymnastics.

The mother and son collaborate on a routine involving elastic cords, in a cross between bungee jumping and trapeze. Its impact is heightened by the proximity of the audience in such an intimate theater.

Some of the evening's segments are less than thrilling, such as the series of sculptural figures created by Chaplin out of bicycles, and some are just plain silly, including the first-act finale, which produces a literal menagerie of animals crawling, walking, and flying across the stage. "The Invisible Circus" is slight, so slight that, while not invisible, it is almost transparent.

But the unassuming nature of the show, and the obvious delight that the performers take in their work, make it an engaging experience. And if their delighted laughter was any indication, children will find it even more than that.

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