When I saw The Forty-Year-Old Version at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre, I was struck by the fact that Radha Blank — like other actresses whose first career brought her to Broadway in 1988 — seemed hardly to have aged in the intervening quarter-century. She looked and behaved like a member of the Baby Boom generation, eminently competent and efficient but with the self-possession and calm of a person accustomed to coping well with obstacles.
Her performance of Denise, a Chicago-based playwright on a desperate search for an agent, matches her softness with discipline: Finishing one act but out of money, Denise seeks out a kooky onetime boyfriend, Robert (Luke Treadaway, his cherubic face framed by a mop of a beard), and his partner, Glen (Robert Newhouse), a retired collector of dates who relies heavily on his alcoholic sidekick, Sal (Miles Fisher). Like he and Denise, Sal is a kind of local institution, but whereas Denise is “from Chicago,” Sal is a transplanted Brit.
Denise’s self-disgust is just as palpable: married to the easy-going but frazzled Bernard (Michael O’Keefe), and writing her second novel, she needs to realize her own ambitions and therefore must abandon her parents. She appears poised to succeed, then finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and pushing 40. Denise discovers that she is an old soul and re-imagines her marriage from afar; her publisher, if given the time, might permit a book that is autobiographical. But Denis’ father, Dr. Martin (Steven Boyer), is wholly in denial: As far as he’s concerned, his daughter is an adult (and therefore doable) after all. Radha Blank directs with such confidence that one longs for clear-sightedness to replace psychological cage-building.
Even so, Blank’s play has flaws. Denise’ father resents her ambition as as much as he resentes the interruptions in his life, a gag which neatly camouflages instead of revealing his own underlying contradictions. Sal’s work on Sal’s behalf is forced and, excepting his slurred speech, a hoot. It might be funnier if he were related to Denise’ own father; if ever.
But the four actors are easy to like, even as they make you feel a bit uncool for not recognizing their middle-aged appeal. The relationship between Sal and Denis feels urgent and touching. And the limited attention span of the theater-going audience — which can find such thrillingly reactionary theatrical exercises as the Hoke Moseley drama “Bootycandy” more engrossing than what ends up being a gripping, dry-witted portrait of 30-something maturity — will find its proper amount of amusement in this story of second chances and refusal to grow up. It may also feel a bit rarefied to call this a play.