Theater Review: ‘Harry Townsend’s Last Stand’

Accepting the inevitable
December 31, 2019 Updated: January 22, 2020

NEW YORK—Len Cariou gives a virtuoso performance as a man determined to live his life on his own terms, in George Eastman’s comedy “Harry Townsend’s Last Stand,” at New York City Center Stage II.

Soon to celebrate his 85th birthday, Harry Townsend (Cariou) has lived in the same home, which he built in a lakeside community in Vermont, for three and a half decades. A former radio host, Harry was always the go-to guy when any of his neighbors needed help, whether dealing with community issues or repairing a front-porch step.

Garrulous and fiercely independent, even more so since the passing of his wife five years earlier, Harry is looking forward to the arrival of his son Alan (Craig Bierko). Unbeknownst to Harry, Alan, who lives in California, isn’t just coming for a visit. Alan has been getting reports from his sister Sarah, who is both Harry’s neighbor and primary caregiver, that it’s no longer safe for their father to live by himself.

Len Cariou in Harry_Townsends_Last_Stand
Len Cariou plays Harry Townsend, a man determined to live out his life the way he chooses. (Maria Baranova)

Alan has also arrived with the express purpose of giving Sarah a much-needed few days off. He finds himself shocked at how much things have changed with his dad: Harry sometimes forgets to take his medications, or takes them twice; he has trouble walking and is starting to lose his train of thought during conversations.

Despite Alan’s best efforts to broach the subject about moving to an assisted living community, Harry has no intention of being with “a bunch of old farts under the same roof, waiting for bus trips to nowhere.”

Never mind that the facility is clearly first-rate in terms of care and comfort, and that some of his former neighbors are already living there. Harry wants to be able to live his life as he wants, and as far as he’s concerned, that’s all there is to it.

There’s a line in the play that goes, “Sometime it’s harder to like someone than it is to love them.” This is often the case with Harry and Alan. Each man is certain that they know what’s best in this situation, if they could only get the other to see it too. The conversation also causes each to bring up old hurts and slights that have festered for years.

It’s more than a story about the inevitable changes that come with getting older. The play points out the importance of the younger generation’s being able to recognize these changes while not taking away a parent’s dignity in the process.

It falls to Alan to make Harry see that his life isn’t over if he leaves the home he loves, but rather that it’s a chance to find new things to enjoy and become passionate about. Harry’s late wife understood this point: She took up quilting when she could no longer play golf. Harry now must face change as well.

A Production That Works

Cariou plays Harry to absolute perfection. Harry is always ready with an off-color joke or life lesson for his son. Sadly, he is someone who has seen the imprint he once made wiped away by the passage of time. Other than his family, few of those living in the community now know who he is or the contributions he once made.

Bierko is fine as Alan. His character serves as the catalyst who sets events in motion. He is constantly trying to find the middle ground where he and his father can reach an understanding. Alan understands how doing what’s right is not always the easiest for all concerned.

Karen Carpenter does an excellent job directing. She has brought forth a degree of tension lurking just below the story’s surface. This is especially true early on as Harry and Alan engage in verbal jousting. In fact, the first act is one long setup before heading into new territory after the intermission: Alan tries to keep on topic while his father does his best to dance around the elephant in the room while reeling off some enjoyable family stories in the process.

Lauren Helpern’s set of Harry’s house perfectly fits the story. The place has a well-lived-in vibe, with objects scattered about somewhat haphazardly. The sound effects by John Gromada set the mood.

A bittersweet tale, “Harry Townsend’s Last Stand” reminds us that change is inevitable, and that recognizing this fact can mean retaining the chance to have a say in the matter. Cariou gives a performance you will not soon forget.

‘Harry Townsend’s Last Stand’
New York City Center Stage II
131 W. 55th St.
New York
Running Time: 2 hours, including one intermission
Closes: April 15, 2020

Judd Hollander is a reviewer for and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.