A WASPy Place
There's an adage in the writing business: "Write what you know." Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Jr., known as A.R., certainly took that advice to heart. After studying playwriting at Yale in the 1950s, Gurney set out on a writing career based almost exclusively on his upper-crust family background, the clubby Northeastern WASP world of wealth, servants, boarding schools, and pricey colleges. This privileged elite, which founded the nation and then proceeded to run it, if not quite completely own it, has recently been designated a dying subculture, its power waning as its numbers shrink. Meanwhile, though, the boardrooms of corporate America are dominated by this group, as are national politics. Though upper-crust Howard Dean (St. Paul's, Yale) has faded, at least momentarily, we are left with a choice between George Bush (Andover, Yale) and John Kerry (St. Paul's, Harvard).
Despite this enduring dominance, wealthy WASPs have often expressed a sense of victimization by societal and cultural change, and with this unease comes plenty of story potential. John Cheever's short stories hunted in this territory, and Gurney's plays have followed in their footsteps. Local WASPs and the WASP-curious may be interested to note that Gurney's breakout hit from 1982, The Dining Room, is on display in a fine production at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton, which had success recently with another Gurney work, The Cocktail Hour. Both plays examine how WASP traditions, such as formal dining and social drinking, are pitted against forces that threaten family solidarity -- personal rebellion and sexual desire chief among them.
As might be expected, The Dining Room takes place in a dining room, a formal, old-fashioned one with an expansive antique table and high-backed wooden chairs, all perfectly placed on a broad Oriental rug and presided over by a glass chandelier. But rather than use this setting for a single linear narrative, Gurney creates a series of short playlets, with a wide range of characters and time eras. Some of these are staged simultaneously: In the opening sequence, a modern corporate executive strolls around a dining room, part of a tour of the now-empty house given by a real estate agent. As they chat, a family patriarch from the 1930s comes in to sit down to breakfast and calls for the maid. Scenes blend and overlap in this manner throughout the play, as a nimble, resourceful cast of six plays 57 roles, all having something to do with the dining room. The sharp contrast between eras is part of the equation. The ordered, traditional family life, which relied on domestic servants to support the formal dining ritual, has given way to open living areas, fast food, and informal eating habits. Gurney makes the point that the obsolescence of the dining room parallels the passing of the culture it signifies. Many scenes center on the clash between group ritual and personal desire. The patriarch from the Thirties expects his young son to show due respect to his mother, but what the boy really wants from his parents is a little affection. In the 1970s, a frustrated wife uses the dining table to type out a grad school thesis over the objections of her strait-laced husband, who bemoans the loss of traditions. While chaperoning their children's birthday party, the father of one and the mother of another can barely keep control of their adulterous lust for each other. In another late-century scene, two adult children argue over who gets to inherit the furniture now that the family has scattered and the house is up for sale.
Each of these scenes appears to be a little playlet connected by a dining room. But as the scenes whiz by, it becomes likely that all of these scenarios are related and that what Gurney is presenting is a mosaic of a single family history, out of sequence but involving just one room, the repository for a lot of repressed emotion and anguish. In one poignant scene, a dying father dictates the details of his funeral arrangements to his oldest son. In another, a son returns early from boarding school to discover his mother is having an affair with his father's best friend. Much of the punch in these scenes comes from the subtext, the unspoken exchanges that flow, sometimes furiously, under the surface of politeness and good manners.
All of this is staged with style and gentle humor by Bruce Lecure. The veteran ensemble -- Dennis Creaghan, Jacqueline Knapp, Pat Nesbit, Ronald H. Siebert, Cary Anne Spear, and Geoffrey Wade -- turns in superior work, with Wade especially attuned to the nuances of Gurney's world. Lecure and company bring a theatrical finesse to the text, as when an actor exits one door as a six-year-old and returns through another as a doddering oldster in what feels like mere seconds.
Still The Dining Room remains somewhat tepid and stylistically uneven. While much of it is staged with subtle grace, the several scenes involving young children turn into near-slapstick, and what seems to be a Chekhovian production shifts into a Fanny Brice-Baby Snooks vaudeville. Moreover Gurney appears to mirror the emotional reticence of his characters. Unlike Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee, Gurney does not fully confront his past. The emotional issues here are touched upon, not examined, and like the family itself, the play tends to dissipate. But perhaps that's the underlying message: These characters seem to have so little impact, they leave no trace. And all that remains of their fading world is the furniture.
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