The so-called generation gap was a cheap source of humor back in the days when youthful baby boomers were beginning to sass their elders. For reasons best known to himself, scribe Oren Safdie (“Private Jokes, Public Places”) feels compelled to revisit that shallow topic in his glib two-hander “The Last Word …,” which locks two would-be playwrights — separated in age by a half-century — in a circuitous argument about their respective aesthetic values. Despite the easy rapport between Daniel J. Travanti and Adam Green, there’s just no bridging the credibility gap presented by their characters.
Travanti, best remembered as the slim and sexy Captain Frank Furillo on “Hill Street Blues,” projects refined intelligence and a lot of wiry energy as Henry Grunwald, a Viennese Jew who had a successful career as a New York advertising executive and now longs to fulfill his youthful dream of writing for the theater. Half blind and holed up in a Greenwich Village office too squalid (in Michael V. Moore’s verite design) to attract rats, the prickly Grunwald robotically turns out old-fashioned plays that unsurprisingly fail to win the hearts and minds of modern-day producers.
This doesn’t seem to affect his vast output, as his untidy filing cabinets appear to be stuffed with unsold manuscripts. But he still needs someone to open his rejection letters and take dictation on his vintage computer, and to this end, he offers a princely (for the 1990s) $15 per hour to Len Artz, the young NYU student who applies for the job.
Green plays Artz with savvy understanding of the awkward complexity of youth. Although inarticulate and antisocial in manner, the kid is supremely confident of his opinions, and after some provocative prodding from his would-be employer, he’s more than happy to air them.
Shakespeare? “I’m not his biggest fan,” Artz says, offering David Mamet as a worthier example of dramatic art.
For his part, Grunwald waves the banner of those dead European male dramatists Artz despises without even listening to what the kid has to say. And Alex Lippard’s in-your-face directorial style results in a badgering tone that comes across as cranky abusiveness.
Predictably, this bickering goes around and around without getting anywhere, largely because it turns on the generational differences between the old man and the young whippersnapper. And while both characters get off some funny cracks, Safdie fails to elevate their argument into a satisfying debate about those life-defining experiences that determine one’s aesthetic principles — irrespective of age.