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A CurtainUp Review
Harry Townsend's Last Stand

"That's right: you California guys hug a lot, don't you?" — Harry
harry townsendslaststand
Len Cariou and Craig Bierko
If only sets could talk. Lauren Helpern's stage design for Harry Townsend's Last Stand, the two-hander by George Eastman at New York City Center Stage II, is a marvel of specificity. At first glance, it's just an old man's downstairs kitchen and living room, yes, but this is a home that emanates decades of history. If we could take out each board game beneath the window-seat, if we could peruse each worn book on the shelf, if we could sort through the clutter on the counters, if we could smell Vermont in the leaves seen just outside the windows, perhaps we could really get to know Harry Townsend, the sole resident, piecing together a life prop by prop.

But nothing in Eastman's play, directed by Karen Carpenter, comes close to the meticulousness of the stage itself. Not that this story of a workaholic, divorced Californian (Craig Bierko) who comes home to rural Vermont to look after his fading father (the original Sweeney Todd himself, Len Cariou) for a weekend doesn't overflow with details. With a non-plot (son Alan tells dad Harry to move to a nursing home; dad reacts), there's nothing to do but wax nostalgic and argue over the past. Those memories, though, seem assembled at random: picking up a box of cereal can trigger a whole reverie, and most of the stories about the past could belong to anyone.

The problem — for the Townsends and for us — is that Alan's barely seen his father in years and he knows his stay will be temporary this time, too. Address Dad's rampant casual homophobia and misogyny? Not worth the effort. Deal seriously with pa's early-onset dementia? Easier to make passing jokes: "Your cheese is starting to slip off the old cracker," "Your freezer's full," "Your wires are starting to cross." Re-organize the spice cabinet? Not with nursing home reservations to make. Bierko's sarcastic and almost-businesslike approach to the awkward mission that Alan's come to carry out doesn't leave enough room for the father-son relationship to complexify beyond the what-coulda-beens of their distant repartee.

For Eastman, a playwright closer in age to Harry than Alan, the emotional attention lands on Harry's resistance to giving up what little freedom he has. As his mind starts to drift, Harry's need for that memory museum of a house grows stronger, too: how else will he be able to remember his late wife, he wonders, without the objects to remind him? Cariou's performance can often be kookily charming, but Harry swings too widely and too rapidly between raunch and rage for this thoughtful actor to capture the lonelier, quieter despair that ought to lie at the play's center.

If Harry Towsend's Last Stand dug just a little bit deeper, it might carry some of the same absorbing weight as Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery , a play that dives all the way into dementia and its effects on both the sufferer and the loved ones who stick with her. Eastman seems determined to let Alan all the way off the hook: he doesn't have to stay to take care of his father, and the play won't condemn him for it either. In Alan's ambivalent apathy may lurk its own tragedy, but that story's neither as short nor as sweet as the harmless Harry Townsend's Last Stand.

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by George Eastman
Directed by Karen Carpenter
Cast: Len Cariou, Craig Bierko
Set Designer: Lauren Helpern
Costume Designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting Designer: Jeff Davis
Sound Designer: John Gromada
Running Time: 2 hours with an intermission
New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street
From 11/18/19; opening 12/4/19; closing 2/9/20
Mondays and Tuesdays at 7:30; Thursdays at 2:30 and 7:30; Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2:30 and 7:30; and Sundays a 3:00
Reviewed by Dan Rubins at 12/16 performance

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