Not counting the teenage girl I spotted attending with her parents, I swear this thirty-something critic was the youngest audience member in an ocean of octogenarians at a recent matinee performance of Northlight Theatre’s impressive world-premiere comedy “Better Late,” co-authored by Larry Gelbart and Craig Wright and helmed by Artistic Director BJ Jones. And yet, it says something of this funny, deliciously sharp and ultimately moving work that it had everyone of every age engaged and entertained for ninety straight minutes. The straightforward set up is fodder for your typical sitcom: a middle-aged California couple makes room for the wife’s curmudgeon of an ex-husband, in his twilight years, frail of health and necessitating a place to crash, despite the protests of acerbic husband number two, for whom wife left husband number one. Cue the “three’s a crowd” comedy and chaos. At first it seems that Gelbart and Wright are content for giggles at the expense of the geriatric set: “Have you seen how the nurse sponges him down?” muses Linda Kimbrough’s wife to which second husband John Mahoney dryly responds, “Like working on the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Yet even as the one-liners become racier (Mahoney’s character later alludes to a caretaker’s ethnicity when he comments on her daily arrival as the “changing of the Filipino guard”) or hysterical (At the cemetery Mahoney’s character is chided for evoking “God” too many times and replies with, “It pays to kiss a little ass around here”), the piece doesn’t settle for being just a comedy for grown-ups. Indeed, beneath that veneer of comic genius lies a big and generous emotional heart happy to explore the complex subjects of friendship, marriage and mortality, and unafraid to tackle profound questions on the ineffable nature of love and fidelity. Mike Nussbaum (giving an expert performance) and Steve Kay (as his son on the sidelines) round out Northlight’s twenty-four-karat cast, and Jones’ expert production is played out on Jack Magaw’s smart and minimalist set whose clean lines and chic lighting are straight out of Metropolitan Home. Like the writing, it’s exquisite. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
At Northlight Theatre, 9501 N. Skokie, Skokie, (847)673-6300. This production is now closed.