As more and more people are discovering every day, growing old in the United States of America isn’t as much fun as the brochures suggest. But that doesn’t mean plays about aging can’t be fun; and if Exit Strategy at Mixed Blood Theatre is any indication, the more miserable we are in our dotage, the funnier those plays are going to be.
Bickering is the key. There’s nothing more entertaining than watching two people who’ve known each other forever snipe and argue over the same little annoyances they’ve been complaining about for decades. I mean, it’s funny to watch a mom scold her teenage son for not putting the toilet seat down, but it’s much funnier to watch an eighty-year-old woman nag an old man for the same infraction of bathroom etiquette, because you can’t help but think, “My god, she’s been harping on that same topic for fifty years, and hasn’t learned that the nagging men about their bathroom habits is a waste of time, or that the best defense against a raised seat is simply to check it before you sit down!”
At any rate, I think it’s funny—but maybe that’s because I’m a man on whom such nagging is lost. Granted, the woman nagging me might not find the humor in it, but after seeing Exit Strategy, I now feel certain I can assure my wife that although she may not find my irritating habits funny now, all she has to do is wait thirty years—then they’re going to be hilarious.
Co-written by ex-Pioneer Press music and theater critic Roy Close and Bill Semans, who also plays Alex the visitor in the play, Exit Strategy is an old-fashioned play in the sense that it doesn’t try to do too much, and what it does attempt, it gets just right. The press teasers for Exit Strategy suggest that it’s a sort of Bucket List for the stage, but the play is less about some old people who refuse to stop going for the gusto than it is a vehicle for some high-quality bickering and a great deal of trenchant but amusing conversation on the nature of sex, death, aging, and various aspects of bodily health.
Set in a tenement hotel that’s going to be shut down in a month, the play revolves around three characters in their seventies and eighties: May, the seventy-something manager of the hotel; James, a gay, eighty-two-year-old ex-actor and resident of the hotel; and Alex, a visitor who enlists them in a caper that ends up forcing May and James to reassess the way they are going to live the rest of their lives.
Though May and James aren’t married, they certainly bicker like they are—and that’s half the fun of the show. James is an aging queen who just wants a warm place to sit and a cigarette every now and then, and May seems determined to make sure he doesn’t get them. Charles Nolte delivers a tremendous performance as James, and as May, Shirley Jean Venard is wonderfully acerbic, lacing all of her comments with an acidic, world-weary cynicism. Both have exquisite comic timing, and they have been gifted with a script that gives them plenty of great dialogue to play with, all steeped in the uncomfortable truth that growing old is a slow process of continual loss—of dignity, independence, love, respect, passion and, eventually, life itself.
In the press kit for Exit Strategy, it’s noted that the people involved in the production of this play have a combined age of over 500, and together they have logged more than 300 years in theater. This may help explain why there’s such a gentle, knowing quality to this play—a willingness to discuss some of the brutal truths about aging combined with the courage and wisdom to laugh at them. For example, James and Alex discuss bowel movements they way teenagers talk about sex: Whereas Alex prefers to stay regular by making sure that he eats enough fiber, James replies, “I use a stool softener. It’s quite lovely.”
That “quite lovely” hints at a private aesthetic experience that anyone over sixty in the audience will recognize. Likewise, May’s matter-of-fact pragmatism is the by-product of a life that didn’t turn out quite the way she planned, of dreams deferred and detoured. So when Alex the visitor proposes the theory that a nap a day can “add years to your life,” she snaps back, “You say that as if it’s a good thing.”
The great thing about Exit Strategy is that it strikes such an entertaining balance between tragedy and comedy, ultimately providing a sense of reassurance that life isn’t over until it’s over, and until the lights go out, interesting things can still happen. And even if they don’t, all those tedious things you’ve been doing for the past forty years are eventually going to be hilarious, given the time and perspective to make them so.
Exit Strategy continues at Mixed Blood Theater through May 4.