Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Dining Room by A. R. Gurney (A New Leaf Theatre)

Friday night I saw A.R. Gurney's "The Dining Room," performed by A New Leaf theater company, whose excellent production of The Permanent Way by David Hare in early 2007 was my introduction to their work. This production is even better. A New Leaf stages their work in a small space in the Lincoln Park Cultural Center, and both productions I've seen were intimate and simple, with practically no props - as far as I remember, nothing beyond a dining table and chairs. (I prefer this approach in intimate theater. With movies lavishly leaving no detail to the imagination, I find myself most engaged by theater that asks me to provide my own share.) The lighting was warm and effective, the kind of quality work you're not supposed to notice.

"The Dining Room" is a meditation on the place that the formal dining room holds in society. Each scene focuses on new characters, and it's their relationship to that room and to each other that he explores. Some of the scenes might have been bringing characters back at different times in their lives, but they might as easily have been similar people. The acting in this production was uniformly far above average, and I felt I was watching a troupe of Alec Guinesses and Peter Sellerses. They might walk out one door as a young child rowdy with birthday excitement and walk in another with the arthritic pains of an elderly person. (These photos only begin to do the effect justice.) There wasn't a weak link in the bunch (Marsha Harman, Max Lesser, Nick Mikula, Melissa Pryor, Christine Stulik, Tiffany Topol, and Steve Wilson), which, as much as I love Chicago storefront theater, I must admit is rare. After the play, I imagined the evening in time-lapse photography, as a blur of characters surrounding the table - in every seat, underneath, and all around.

The play itself, organized so prominently around an artifact of daily life, felt fresh and thoughtful, weighty enough to satisfy but not as heavy as many classic dramas. The script evokes an entire palette of emotions, asking what role the formal dining room played in its heyday and what we're losing in its decline. Those might seem to be strange concerns for a play, but the setting facilitates a sideways approach to more traditional subjects such as love, death, class, and family. Of course, though the play implies universal relevance, in reality not everyone can afford a formal dining room. The play uses maid characters to bring in another point of view, something it could have developed just a bit more for balance.

I'd never see a Gurney play before, and I was curious to see what his other major works are--wondering what to keep my eye out for in future productions. Most artists with any longevity to their careers seem to end up with some persistent aspect of their reputation that they can complain about in interviews, and Gurney's association with WASP culture appears to be his. (I wonder if Whit Stillman is a fan.) I also learned that Gurney has been heavily prolific throughout his career, with several successes on and off Broadway. "The Dining Room" is his most famous play and is generally considered his greatest success.

As for his other work, one critic wrote that "The Cocktail Hour shows Gurney at the top of his form...a very entertaining comedy filled with sophisticated humor." Critic Richard Gilman, writing in The Nation, grouped "The Middle Ages" and "The Dining Room" as plays that "display most of Gurney's methods and concerns. They wander around in time--The Middle Ages begins in the mid-1940s and ends in the late 1970s--their scenes are connected not by narrative progression but by a ruling idea, and they deal with aspects of WASP life." And Frank Rich wrote that "'The Perfect Party' seemed to be a metaphor for the relationship between a playwright, his audience and his critics--with a strong statement about esthetics thrown in." He labeled this play as "surely Mr. Gurney's funniest, meanest and most theatrical play yet." Another play often mentioned is "Later Life." I look forward to reading or seeing some of them in the future.



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