The Dining Room
By David A. Rosenberg
At first glance A. R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room” seems nothing more than vignettes about upper-class twits. Look further and what emerges is a gently satirical dissection of a waning species.
The 1982 play, which jump-started Gurney’s career, is being given a lovely production at Westport Country Playhouse. Often misunderstood as strictly a boulevard playwright, Gurney is actually subversive and critical, though also affectionate, about characters desperate to hold onto their pasts.
In a ghostly room dominated by a sleek dining room table, six stalwart actors play more than 50 men, women and children sucked in by a vanishing culture. Treating their surroundings with varying degrees of reverence and disdain, they juggle servants, parties, drinking, eating and flirting, while bemoaning the loss of manners. When they disagree, it’s ever so politely.
In overlapping scenes, characters with names like Brewster, Aggie, Winkie and Standish live in a world of boarding schools, country clubs, dance academies and finger bowls. It’s a lost, primitive world, ripe for an anthropological study.
Generations clash (divorcing daughter seeks place to roost) and traditions are upended (should the beautiful table be used for typing a term paper?). These spoiled yet basically decent WASPs may be dinosaurs, yet Gurney creates them with such telling details that they actually arouse empathy.
It helps that hearty laughs temper stiff upper lips. Particularly amusing are the rebels: the teen girls drinking a combination of gin, vodka and Fresca while waiting for boys to come over; the young lady wanting to be with the aunt who, horrors, once ran off with her riding master; the upright father determined to defend the honor of his slandered brother.
Under Mark Lamos’ astute direction, the cast neither condescends to nor ridicules their characters. Heidi Armbruster, Chris Henry Coffey, Keira Naughton, Jake Robards, Charles Socarides and Jennifer Van Dyck are superb delineators and dissectors. On Michael Yeargan’s evocative set, which looks embalmed in time, they enact a dance of restraint and exceptional humanity.