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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Since 2002 Mr. Gurney, best known as the chronicler of WASP culture, has been increasingly exacerbated about the stewardship of the country's welfare by our leaders. Two seasons ago he updated an existing play, The Fourth Wall, to shift his putdowns of the first President Bush to apply to Bush Junior. Last season Jim Simpson, the artistic director of the very socially aware Flea Theater in Tribeca directed O, Jerusalem, in which Gurney used a fictional Yale classmate of Bush Junior to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now the playwright and director have joined forces again for another Bush basher, Mrs. Farnsworth. It stars Simpson's wife Sigourney Weaver in the title role and John Lithgow as her husband.
In case you're worried that Gurney has traded his comedic flair for grim political diatribes, relax. He may be mad as hell about the state of the body politic, but he's still more entertainment bent dramatist than theatrical muckraker.
Topical and anti-administration as it is, Mrs. Farnsworth is written to make us laugh rather than to raise our political conscience. As Gurney acknowledged in a recent interview, he knows that his audience at the Flea is likely to be made up of like-minded souls which is fine with him because he's not using his stand-in, Mrs. Farnsworth, to ask anyone "to march to the Capital." Indeed, the play offers confirmation rather than revelation -- the only possible revelation being Mr. Farnsworth's WASP's eye view of George W. Bush. What this new play does provide is the fun of getting to know both Farnsworths and being part of Gordon's (Danny Burstein) writing class which, except for three "students" (Kate Benson, Fernando Gambaroni, Tarajia Morrell) planted in the audience, is made up of ticket buyers.
To implement the conceit of turning the theater into a classroom, director Simpson has configured the space so that the audience is seated stadium style. The "class" faces the playing area which consists of a desk for the teacher, a chalkboard, a couple of chairs and a wall clock which moves in real time (understandably, no set designer is listed). While Gordon usually has several students read their work, this session is dominated by a new student -- you guessed it, Mrs. Farnsworth. She arrives breathless and apologetic about being late -- her pink cashmere sweater and pearls screaming old money exurbanite. Along with lots of spilled self-relevatory details we learn that she desperately needs help to finish her novel-in-progress, all but a paragraph of which her husband has tossed into the fireplace of their Connecticut home.
The contents of that remaining fragment of the novel hardly makes a persuasive case for its being in urgent need of publication. It seems mostly a tidbit about a college romance begun on the ski slope. But wait. . . Margery's, I mean Mrs. Farnsworth's (she agrees with her grandmother's dictum that too much first-naming destroys personal distances) youthful romance was with a Yale student from a prominent family who drank too much, moved to Texas and is now in a very prominent job.
I won't spoil the fun by going too deeply into the background of Mrs. Farnsworth's saga. Suffice it to say that Sigourney Weaver is hilariously engaging as the discombobulated woman of a certain age, a liberal Democrat residing in the heartland of rich, tennis playing Republicans. Burstein is disarming as her straight man. By the time Mr. Farnsworth shows up (a full forty-five minutes into the play), the "class" via the three actor-kibitzers has him tagged as a complete villain.
It's when Lithgow comes on stage that the real fun begins. Thanks to this always reliable actor's spectacular ability to let deep feelings show through a stuffed shirt facade, the heretofore amusing diversion, suddenly takes on a fuller and richer life. While Mr. Gurney has named his play for Mrs. Farnsworth, he's saved his best writing for Mr. Farnsworth, making him one of the least typical and most endearing buttoned-down, upper crust snobs you're likely to meet in a long while -- a Noel Coward-ish Connecticut Yankee.
Unless you've already bought a ticket, you may not be able to join Gordon's class since the entire run of Mrs. Farnsworth sold out during previews. You can sign ups for cancellations 90 minutes prior to each performance at the box office or put yourself on the email list which The Flea Theater has begun for patrons interested in being notified of any added performances, last minute ticket releases or possible extension (see web address in production notes below) -- something I'd recommend your doing since my guess is that the show will extend for at least a couple of additional weeks.
Links to other recent A. R. Gurney forays into politics:
The Fourth Wall
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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>6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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