Life begins at seventy in Bill Semans and Roy Close’s Exit Strategy, now entertaining audiences eighteen to eighty at Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theatre.

James (James B. Sikking) and Mae (Debra Mooney) are longtime residents of the Penley, a teensy little tenement hotel which Mae manages.  Though eighty-two-year-old James is decidedly gay, the two seniors have occupied adjoining chairs in front of the communal TV set for so long that they might as well be married.  Mae’s complaints about the toilet seat being left up and the thermostat not being kept down to sixty-five degrees have probably been ongoing since the two began sharing the same common room.  Both retirees live on limited incomes, so limited in fact that Mae will trudge through the rain all the way to K-Mart just to save six dollars on prescription medication.

Both have already lived their younger lives to the fullest, James having performed on Broadway before settling down to the academic life as a college professor, Mae having been married four times (and quite possibly guilty of bigamy in the bargain).  Things have not worked out so well for them of late, however. James lost his teaching job when a relationship with at 22-year-old was discovered (even though the young man was not his student), and Mae has been estranged from her only daughter for years. Now, to make matters even worse, an eviction notice has arrived in the mail.

If only something would happen to shake up their lives, something to make them feel the joie de vivre that marked their younger years.

That something, or more precisely someone, arrives one day in the person of Alex (John C. Moskoff), a relative whippersnapper at the age of seventy, who shows up asking to rent the recently vacated extra room, despite the strong odor of Lysol used to mask the smell of a body not discovered until two days after its occupant’s demise.

Alex has a plan, a deliciously larcenous plan, and he needs a pair of accomplices to help pull it off. Who better to help him recover stolen property belonging to his family from an archive next door than James and Mae, the perfect decoys as Alex pilfers what he feels is rightly his? In exchange for their help, Alex offers his hotel-mates enough money for Mae to put down a down payment on a house in the country and for James to get a new lease on life. What to do?  What to do?

Anyone who thinks that Mae and James are simply going to send Alex on his merry way hasn’t seen or read enough caper stories, and though any illegal shenanigans the trio may undertake occur offstage, just hearing about them is exhilarating fun indeed.

Semans and Close have filled their script with one-liners galore, for example when Alex tells James that he doesn’t think he’s ever met a Broadway actor before, and James quips, “If you’ve ever eaten in a New York restaurant, you have.”  Sometimes laughter and tears come hand in hand, as when James (following a particularly humiliating encounter at a gay bar) moans, “I think I’ve sucked my last cock,” hilarious and somehow quite tragic at the same time. Language in Exit Strategy is not for children under a certain age, sex, bodily functions, aging and death being frequent topics of conversation. (Alex stays regular by eating lots of fiber but James prefers a stool softener he affectionately describes as “lovely.”) Still, as funny as Exit Strategy is, it is also a spot-on commentary on getting old in America that anyone over a certain age will be able to identify with.

It is also one of the few plays that offer plum acting assignments to older actors, and by that I don’t mean “over forty.” Though the cast may not be quite as old as the characters they play (Sikking is a mere seventy-four to James’ eighty-two), they are an inspiration to any younger performer who complains about having too many lines to learn or too physically tiring a role to play. 

Moskoff is a marvelously vital Alex, Mooney a superbly acerbic Mae, and Sikking really sinks his teeth into the best-written role of the three, for a multi-hued portrait of a man despairing of what he’s lost yet still clinging to the hope that springs eternal in us all. It’s also one of the few roles ever about an octogenarian gay.

Falcon directorial favorite Casey Stangl is at the top of her game here, never allowing performances to become caricatures of old age and recognizing the importance of silences that occur among people who’ve spent most of their time together for years.

The design team couldn’t be better.  Keith Mitchell’s set is deliciously dreary, with its thrift store swivel armchairs and sagging shelves. Nick McCord’s lighting is equally fine, sunlight casting shadows on the floor as an invisible TV reflects off of James and Mae’s faces. Denitsa Mliznakova’s costumes are suitably bedraggled, even the characters’ “evening best.” Kudos too to David Beaudry for his sound design and Deirdre Murphy for her props.

Acting roles for thespians over a certain age are about as plentiful as those for racial and ethnic minorities, and great, multilayered ones even harder to come by.  Mooney, Moskoff, and Sikking have every reason to rejoice every time the curtain comes up on another performance of Exit Strategy, and theatergoers do as well. Exit Strategy is proof positive that like wine, whiskey, and Cuban cigars, we human beings too can get better with aging.

Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
October 29, 2009
                                                     Photos: Chelsea Sutton

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