Gurney’s “The Dining Room” at Westport Playhouse thru May 18

 

 By Tom Nissley

A.R.Gurney’s wonderful play describing the archeology of the WASP culture at its best and worst dimensions is playing in Westport until May 18. It is sure not to disappoint. A splendid ensemble cast of six persons, Heidi Armbruster, Chris Henry Coffey, Keira Naughton, Jake Robards, Charles Socarides, and Jennifer Van Dyck, play through the more than fifty roles that illustrate the magic of the one-time center of family life in proper society.

 

The dining room on stage, beautifully imagined by designer Michael Yeargan, becomes the setting for a real estate agent selling a house, an architect who can think of ways to chop it in two, mothers and fathers instructing or ignoring their children, dinner parties, formal breakfasts, fights over who gets what furniture from the estate, and my favorite scene out of many, a nephew interviewing his aunt about how to properly set the table using finger-bowls. He takes pictures of the setting, casually revealing that his Sociology professor thought it would be great to have the rigid WASP culture represented in a class studying remote indigenous cultures -- which gets him thrown out of the house.

 

A program note has Gurney saying that he originally conceived of the play being acted behind a golden rope, as if it was dioramas being styled in a museum. It can be confusing to watch the scenes blending one into the other and it takes a few of these moving by before you realize that the last one isn’t related to the next one. What the playwright has done is to show how very formal is the structure of family life, no matter in what generation, or in what setting (a play called “the family room” could in fact have as many funny sequences of differently structured behavior, today), but it must be admitted that he picked his target well. The dining room is, and certainly was, the place where a family puts itself to anchor who they are to their own sense of being. I noticed that as we traveled home after the show, my wife and I talked about the dining rooms we’d known as children, and as I reflected on the play I’ve thought of more dining rooms where a family could be easily defined. You’ll do that too.

 

The lighting (Steven Strawbridge), sound (John Gromada), and costumes (Jane Greenwood) add handsomely to this beautifully directed play (Mark Lamos). For all but the final scene the appurtenances of tablecloths, tea cups and plates or goblets, are dispensed with; i.e. held by the actors as if they are there but not provided by the stage manager. It’s a conceit that works well.

 

Bottom line: a fine production of a classic play. Go and enjoy. Tickets and information at www.Westportplayhouse.org or 203-227-4177.

 

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