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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
I last saw Children two years ago at Williamstown with a starry cast of Broadway actors, headed by Judith Light who's currently in the Broadway production of Other Desert Cities. Though it's hardly a case of a writer's best and never again topped first effort, neither does it suffer from the undeveloped dramaturgical skills of a novice playwright. In fact, seeing Children at a small Off-aBroadway venue with The Actors Theater Company own artistic director Scott Alan Evans at the helm and four of his company's regulars on stage, I was once again impressed by Gurney's from the get-go display of a highly developed observer's sense and the theatrical savvy with which he structured his character rich story.
Since my take on the current revival is more or less the same as for the 2009 production, this review is, except for specifics about the actors and staging, an update of that review. Besides Gurney's impressive dramaturgical sophistication (Both Ms. Kazan and Mr. Eisenberg would benefit from studying Gurney's plays for their solid structure), Children isn't nearly as dated as you might expect, given that it was written forty years ago and is loosely based on John Cheever's even older 1950 short story, "Goodbye My Brother." It seems well written and performed family dramas with Chekhovian touches like this story's Lopakhin-like yard boy-turned successful bulder, never go out of style.
Gurney, a great Cheever admirer, retained the setting of the story — a New England beach house which has been in the obviously prosperous family at the story's center for years. It's a spacious place, with great views and a tennis court which is indicative of the estate's somewhat shabby overall condition.
The playwright smartly fast forwarded the time frame from a 1950 to 1970 when social mores were in flux. He compressed the family's summer holiday reunion to a single day of the 4th of July weekend, dropped some characters and re-focused the entire family dynamic which accounts for its being credited as "suggested by" rather than "adapted from."
For anyone familiar with the Cheever story, it's fascinating to see Cheever family take on the Gurnian traits that have been hallmarks of his gentle and always entertaining exposes of the Northeastern WASP world — the inbred isms (conservatism and anti-semitism) as well as its patrician habits and ironclad rules of good manners and duty; the latter tending to make adultery happen but rarely leading to a happily ever after outcome.
And so this often seen setup of a family reunion brings to light the conflicting past and present customs. While some of the customs the family matriarch known only as Mother (Darrie Lawrence) sees being abandoned within her own family would have different references were the play set in 2009, the urge to hold onto the status quo while coming to grips with the inevitable changes wrought by time and circumstance is timeless.
The kicker to stir up the old memories is that after five years of widowhood Mother is planning to marry the man her two sons and daughter know as Uncle Bill. Since this is not a marriage of convenience, but a love match, we soon realize that Mother's calm, cool and collected persona is part of a lifetime spent heeding the dictates of duty and propriety rather than the heart.
Given the terms of the husband's will, remarriage means that ownership of the summer home passes on to the children and so Mother has invited the long absent and difficult youngest son Pokey (Richard Thieriot). The nickname is attributed to his poker-faced demeanor and penchant for stirring things up — a tendency that has made him chronically dissatisfied with his work endeavors, but most of all with the way his family clings to its WASP-y value system.
It will come as no surprise that Pokey's presence after a five year absence and Mother's pending marriage to the man suddenly more than a close-as-kin family friend will make this a stormy weekend despite the perfect for tennis and swimming weather. What IS surprising is how ahead of his time Gurney was in structuring his script so that audiences can follow the various characters struggling, much like Chekhov's Russian gentry, to come to grips with feelings about themselves, towards each other and the non-standstill world they live in — and to do so with an economical cast and within the 90-minute running time that's become increasingly popular with modern theater goers.
While we see just four actors on stage, there are four never seen additional characters who figure importantly in the action (the cast of characters would double if you count three sets of children). This theatrical sleight-of-hand is accomplished by concentrating on Mother (Lawrenc), divorced daughter Barbara (Margaret Nichols), perennial preppy son Randy (Richard Thieriot), and his also WASPdom born but ready for a change wife Jane (Lynn Wright).
Though it may seem odd that Pokey, who's crucial to everything that happens, is among the invisible characters, this works very well. (There's a tiny exception to this, but it's a bit of a twist so I won't say more about it). The other important but never seen characters are Uncle Bill, Pokey's smart Jewish wife Miriam, and Barbara's Chekhov-like lover, the family's former gardener.
While the published script break the eight scenes into two acts, director Evans keeps things moving along without an intermission. The transitions fluidity is greatly abetted a by Bradley King's subtle lighting. Scenic Designer Brett J. Banakis has added just enough of the weathered wood house to the dominating patio to evoke the tranquil seaside locale even though the spacious grounds, the seaside and tennis courts are, like some of the characters, not physically seen.
Darrie Lawrence ably unravels Mother's cool exterior to expose the complex emotions underneath. Her final "independence" speech is both touching and satisfying. Richard Thieriot gets the happily clinging to his preppy passions for tennis, swimming and sex Randy just right. Margaret Nichols is also fne as his more complicated sister who, unlike her mother left the man she married though loving another.
Lynn Wright is appealingly convincing as Randy's wife Jane, who has enough sensitivity to see something in Pokey's wife Miriam to find herself wanting to break free from the less meaningful aspects of WASPdomr. But while Jane admires Miriam's loving and open relationship with her children and her studying for a PhD, Barbara, who's herself rebelling against the WASPy ways that led her into an unhappy marriages, still retains vestiges of her inbred anti-Semitism; to wit, she poo-poos Miriam's studiousness as " a Jewish thing." In turn, Miriam (via dialogue by Jane) makes fun of Jane's coming out party ("Oh, a WASP Bar Mitzvah") when she sees her don her coming-out party gown (a stunning creation courtesy of costume designer Haley Lieberman) for a costume party at the yacht club
Despite Gurney's drastic departure from the Cheever story, especially his quite different interpretation of the outsider brother, one of the play's pleasures for me is that it brings back memories of reading and loving Cheever's brilliant short stories. Still, a young literature teacher and budding playwright, Mr. Gurney couldn't have chosen a finer writer to jumpstart this early play.
The complete collection of Cheever's stories, as well as his novels, remain in print. Goodbye My Brother can also be read on line (free) at http://members.multimania.co.uk/shortstories/cheevergoodbyebrother.html Reading that story is to discover exquisite phrases like this by the narrator about his downbeat brother Lawrence (the Cheever version of Gurney's Pokey): "Oh, what can you do with a man like that?. . .How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne; the infirm hand. . ."
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