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A CurtainUp Review
The Dining Room
By Elyse Sommer
Though it had a long run at Playwrights' Horizon, this 1982 play that put Gurney on the map as our prime chronicler of Wasp culture wasn't seen by nearly as many people as his super hit, Love Letters. Unlike that two-hander, The Dining Room features a cast of more than fifty characters, a number that was an economic challenge for producers long before the cost of putting on a show rose to its current astronomical heights. That's why Gurney, though not the inventor of double casting, was certainly influential in introducing the convention that made The Dining Room such fiendishly stylish fun to watch— and still does.
As Mr. Gurney's contained his romp through some five decades of Twentieth Century American family mores within the universe of Northeastern Wasps, so he constructed it to be played on a single set and by an unspecified but very affordably sized cast. His ideal was to have six actors, playing all types of characters ranging in age from eight to eighty. To add to the fun, the vignettes jumped from one era to another and with overlapping scenes, so that even before a scene is finished, one or two characters from the next enter.
Jonathan Silverstein, who last year proved that there was still plenty to savor in Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy (review) has done the same for The Dining Room. He has heeded Gurney's casting notes and assigned the many roles "democratically" among six actors and "without any emphasis on one particular type of role." As the first thespians gather around the metaphoric main prop, the large, burnished mahogany dining table, and just a few scenes into this production, and it's clear that Silverstein has also followed Gurney's advice "to cast the play with people of different ages, sizes and shapes as long as they are all good actors." Thus from the brawny and imposing Dan Daily to delicately pretty Samantha Soule and the seasoned comedienne Anne McDonough (who actually played some of Soule's and Claire Lautier's roles in the original), these actors are terrific — whether as characters you would expect them to play or totally counter to their age, looks and type.
The room for which the play is named remains an apt stage metaphor for a way of life that seems unassailable, but isn't. As we spend time with various inhabitants of what's come to be known as Gurneyland, we see habits and attitudes become as outmoded and creaky as the table that dominates the room. In fact, when in one scene, the stockbroker turned carpenter (a common career switch during the self-actualizing late sixties) gets beneath the table to see how the by now shaky table might be repaired, he notes that it was one of many manufactured in 1898— serviceable but not a priceless antique immune to changing tastes and values.
And so it goes. . .
The vision of an architect who wants to open up the dining room and make the house into a more livable space turns out to be prompted by his own unhappy memories of hours spent in a similar house. In a typically amusing Gurney plot twist, the architect's client is a psychiatrist and the exchange turns into a mini patient-shrink session. A father (probably the one haunting the architect) enthralls and terrorizes his children with his aura of knowing everything and his constant policing of their manners and grammar.
Unfeeling attitudes towards children, servants and other outsiders are evident throughout the two hours, though there are poignant moments as well as when a man uses plans for his funeral arrangements as a final attempt to get close to his son. In one of the play's wittiest scenes, an Amherst student uses his Wasp background for a project on the eating habits of different cultures. As the student photographs his aunt demonstrating what went into a dinner party during the family dining room's heyday, Gurney manages to straddle satire and nostalgia, so that even as he makes fun of the oh so formal habits of old, he also gives the aunt her affectionate due.
As with any collage piece like this, not all the parts are equally amusing or touching. While Claire Lautier is excellent whether a brittle mother, a rebellious 70s teen ager or the aunt proudly demonstrating the use of a finger bowl, a sequence in which she keeping a group of youngsters amused at a birthday party while dealing with a still unfulfilled extra-marital affair seems a bit too torn from the pages of a book of John Cheever's short stories. (Gurney has in fact often been called the theatrical equivalent of Cheever).
Much of the enjoyment comes from seeing the actors segue from character to character. While I don't usually like to see adults playing children, this ensemble puts all reservations about this to rest. Dan Daily's very apt portrait of an autocratic father and the rich old grandfather visited mostly with requests for money, is made doubly enjoyable when taken as a whole with his portrayals of a rambunctious youngster at a birthday party and a boy trying to dissuade a family servant from quitting her job. In the same way, Samantha Soule is multiple-wonderful: as a shy, wide-eyed teenager. . .as a young wife and mother who wants to put life with her husband (as well as her Lesbian lover) behind her and come home. . .and, most touchingly, as a grandmother with signs of Alzheimer's.
Dana Moran Williams' right on the mark dining room is elegantly lit by Josh Bradford and everyone is dressed to suit time and situation by Theresa Squire. The days of dinners with heavy silver cutlery and servants to polish it may be part of that vast space reserved for relics of yesteryear, but cleverly constructed plays like this continue to be worth seeing -- especially if presented with as much flair as this production.