Thursday Feb 14, 1985
Sterling performances light up 'The Dining Room'
|By Peter Canellos
Special to the Journal
Aunt Harriet, doughty matron, is laying out a formal place-setting — "three-pronged fork, pistol-handled knife..." — while her great-nephew Tony clicks off photo after photo. Chirps Tony, ‘ It’s a class project for Amherst. For anthropology. We’re studying the eating habits of vanishing cultures.. .my professor suggested I do a slide show on us, the New England WASPs."
Aunt Harriet and Tony inhabit one of 18 skIts that comprise "The Dining Room," A.R. Gurney’s humorous look at the decline of New England values, Customs, and prejudices. As played by Judith Chanoux and Jonathan Niles of the Concord Players, Aunt Harriet and Tony are full, flowering characters. They are the quintessence of the generational struggle Gurney seeks to dramatize. They are "The Dining Room" at its best.
And If I wished I had seen mare of Aunt Harriet and Tony — more than the roughly five minutes of stage time Gurney saw fit to allot them — It Is hardly the fault of the Concord Players, whose excellent production does Gurney’s relatively thin script a justice if doesn’t deserve.
‘The Dining Room" takes place In many dining rooms, from 1930 to the present. The skits are presented, In no discernible order, as miniature one-acts with the common thread of being set In dining rooms. Each of the 18 skits seeks to add a stroke to the picture of New England life Gurney is painting. "The Dining Room" is part drama, part satire, and part comedy.
The director’s note to the Concord Players’ program states that
"Mr. Gurney uses the room like a revolving door for life’s large and little ironies." This Gurney does wIth the sterile detachment of a physician examining a faceless body; as a result, "The Dining Room" is built around a series of situations, not characters. For the audience, there Is an inevitable sense of letdown when it becomes clear that "The Dining Room" is a collection of sketches rather than a contiguous play — as if someone handed you a box of chocolates when you expected a cake.
For the six cast members, each of whom must change characters approximately a dozen times, "The Dining Room’s" format presents special pains and pleasures. On the one hand, the characters are so underwritten that Gurney has given his actors little or no direction. On the other hand, there is a great deal of room for Inspired interpretation — which the Concord Players provide with aplomb.
For exactly that reason — the new twists on the characters — I found the Concord Players production of "The Dining Room" actually superior to the professional touring production I saw in Philadelphia last year. Certainly the technical aspects of the Concord production — set design and lighting, the usual Achilles heels of amateur productions — were comparable to those of the Philadelphia production. Indeed, "The Dining Room" created for the Concord stage 15 eminently stolid and sumptuous in its august dignity.
One problem inherent in both productions stems from Gurney’s mandate that each cast member play characters ranging In age from 10 to 80 or older. Presumably, this is Intended to make clear distinctions between the skits, so no one in the audience might think the actors are portraying the same people from scene to scene.
But interpreting characters 70 years apart in age is a huge burden to place on any actor, and the results are necessarily uneven. The three women in the Concord production are roughly the same age, which allows them to change roles more easily than the men, knowing they will never have to fight against the awkwardness of playing the daughter of someone noticlbly younger than they are.
The men, however, seem to have at least a decade between them. Thus, Shep Wenglin, with a furrowed brow and balding pate, excels In several old codger roles, and then Is called upon to play a little child who has to say goodbye to a beloved maid in one of Gurney’s more serious sketches. As in all his roles, Wenglln is excellent in interpreting the child: however, much of the dramatic impact of the brief scene is lost while the audience adjusts to the improbability of an older man playing a child, with a younger woman in the role of the maid.
Similarly, the boyish Jonathan Niles, so good as Aunt Harriet’s brazen Tony, is unbelievable as a pompous patriarch in another scene.
The minor miracle of the production is that, against all of Gurney’s misguided intents, each actor succeeds in leaving at least one individual impression on the audience, despite his or her many roles:
Shep Wenglin, the self-made old man whose grandchildren leech off him for cars, trips to Europe, fancy prep school educations, and the like; Lillian Anderson, the Insensitive matron bubbling in anger at her servants’ inefficiency; Jay McManus, the psychologist engaged In rapid-fire repartee with an architect who wants to cut up his dining room; Jonathan Niles, Tony the anthropology student; Mikki Lipsey, the epitomy of soulful dignity in several servant roles, then displaying the charm and pizazz of a younger Nanette Fabray in her other roles.
Judith Chanoux impresses in all her roles. She is superb as Aunt Harriet, one of Gurney’s few memorably written characters. But she is equally good as a teenager raiding her parents’ liquor cabinet, and as an unsatisfied housewife blissfully contemplating running off with another man, knowing full well she won’t do it. She brings uncommon insight to her seemingly ornamental roles as well. In perhaps her most extraordinary characterization, she conveys the bitter resignation behind the passive gaze of a loyal family retainer without using a single line of dialogue.
Of the 18 skits, only two would I judge to be failures. In one, a divorcee flirts with a furniture repairman by feigning interest in his work, ultimately climbing under the table with him for pointers. Lillian Anderson’s reading of the divorcee is so straightforward that one assumes this woman really is interested in carpentry more than the carpenter. Jay McManus. is the repairman. seems equally confused; he is so low-key that Anderson may as well be talking to the table.
In this production’s other, more serious lapse, a potentially touching scene in which three grown Sons try to reach out to their senile mother by singing to her, while their catty wives gripe about being ignored, is mistakenly played as a comedy sketch. The fault is not with Mikki Lipsey. who makes a sweet and gentle mother, or with Anderson and Chanoux as the two nasty wives. The three men approach their parts with conscious insincerity; they sing to their mother with annoyed expressions on their faces, like impatient fathers trying to quiet a baby. As a result, the audience believes that the mother’s senility is a punch line in itself, and laughs at her when it should be quietly absorbing the scene.
Director Patricia Butcher cuts to the core of every scene but those two, taking many of the pieces further than Gurney might have anticipated. In the Philadelphia production, the scenes were paced so quickly, one on top of the other, that you could see the sweat on the actors’ faces. Butcher has wisely slowed things down.
One complaint: the actors don’t always face the audience. Too often, characters address their lines to each other, with the result being a few lines lost even to the front row. This is most evident in a birthday party scene, when two characters inexplicably sit in chairs with their backs to the audience, even though two chairs on the other side of the table are empty.
"The Dining Room" ends on a bland note, with a happy family sitting down and toasting themselves, as if Gurney is feeding the audience a tranquilizer and sending it home with a smile on its collective face. The playwright seems to deliberately avoid making a clear statement.
To the extent that there are real conflicts in the skits that make up "The Dining Room" — the insensitivity inherent in Tony’s use of Aunt Harriet. for example — Gurney sees fit to slough them off with a quick laugh. and then deaden their impact with the onslaught of a totally different scene. The overall effect is similar to that of looking at the photo album of someone you don’t know — there’s a certain voyeuristic interest, a few laughs. and so much you don’t understand.
"The Dining Room" is very easy to absorb, but It is not a play that stays with you. Which is not to say that the Concord Players production isn’t in Itself memorable. Unusually fine lighting and set design. clever direction, and six sterling performances can make Gurney’s glibness seem like gold.