Saturday, September 20, 2008

opening-night review of *The Dining Room*

at Spokane Interplayers Ensemble through Oct. 4

In a production that acknowledges both the value and the absurdity of ritual in human relationships — along with the need for simple human kindness — Interplayers has presented Spokane with another A.R. Gurney Jr. play that somehow, despite seeming simplicity, explores common longings, common disappointments. Over the course of 20 scenes scattered from the 1930s to the ‘70s, six actors play nearly five dozen characters. Thereís no real plot in *The Dining Room*; what there is, in director Karen Kalensky’s production, is a sense of how we all want love and affection and a sense of home. And don’t always know how to acquire it.
While some of the five-dozen characterizations lack subtlety, the six actors at Interplayers (through Oct. 4) generally deliver real people onstage. In live performance, some of the scenes feel ghostly: Characters from different decades wander past one another, oblivious to the people who will inhabit the same space years from now or years ago,
It’s voyeuristic theater: We witness five-minute scenes between people whose circumstances, despite Gurney’s ability to characterize quickly, we don’t fully know. (Sort of as in real life.)
The action swirls around a turn-of-the-century dining room table, showing how society has neglected, to its cost, the elegant ritual of taking the time to prepare meals and actually converse with one another. (Not all the characters want to take the time — but the room and the table fight back, as if they were themselves characters in the drama.)
Among an ensemble that usually makes good choices, Reed McColm stands out. As a demanding and proper patriarch of the 1930s, he draws out his vowels and pauses to let his commands sink in; soon after, he’s all knock-kneed and peeking about with sidelong glances as an Irish boy who’s infatuated with the family maid. Perhaps best of all — and in an example of how a rounded characterization can be achieved even amid the rapid-fire turnover of Gurney’s short scenes — McColm chooses to play a cranky grandfather as more than just cranky. Approached for money by a grandson he barely knows, McColm doesn’t laugh at his old codger and turn the scene into ridicule of graybeards; instead, he carves out a loving interrogation of the boy, questioning and guiding him, aware of life’s cyclical nature but trying to stave off its disasters for another generation yet.
Thomas Stewart shines as an angry son who just wants to sell off his family’s possessions and as an architect who has reasons of his own for wanting to re-purpose the dining room as offices. Another newcomer to the Interplayers stage, Bethany Hart, makes her mark as a rebellious teen, resentful sibling, needy daughter and bratty kid.

Some of the acting, however, takes shortcuts. Now, if you’re one actor in a cast of six — each of whom is tasked with playing nine or 10 distinct characters in the course of a dozen scenes ranging over five decades, and with limited stage time to establish the distinctiveness of each character you’re portraying — naturally you’re going to concentrate in rehearsal on making each figure different. And the shorthand way to do that is caricature. A scene between a society matron and her unrefined, immature daughter was ruined by director Kalensky’s decision to portray the daughter as a version of Gilda Radner's Lisa Loopner. There could have been an interesting debate between a mother who values tradition and a daughter who values self-determination; instead, it became a one-dimensional comic skit that swirled down the drain of caricature.
Similarly, one of Gurney’s most startling inversions — the grad student in anthropology studying his grandmother as "one of the WASPs of the northeastern United States" — gets undermined by Kalensky’s allowing Thomas Stewart (otherwise very effective throughout the evening) to camp up the student as a nerdy klutz who keeps dropping his notebook. And dropping his notebook.
Then he drops his notebook again and adjusts his nerdy glasses. Not only is it annoying, it steals from the scene’s proper focus: the elderly woman’s realization that the rituals she cherishes are, for others, just fodder for academic study.
A scene between Kalensky and Michael Maher that should have sizzled with sexual tension fizzled instead. And watching adults act like little children can be cringe-worthy sometimes, though most of the excesses are avoided here.

There’s a wonderful kind of time-defying, universalizing quality to having a single actor play a whole roomful of characters: Matriarchs turn into housemaids turn into spoiled children, and the mind is tugged away from our differences and toward the shared goals that unite us. It’s inspiring: Here within these same walls have lived (will live) people whose ups and downs are significantly higher or lower than my own. Just folks — folks who figured out the same problems, even if the customs of our grandparents’ generation did seem so awfully peculiar at the time.
Gurney’s play itself has already aged 27 years, already become a familiar part the American theatrical landscape. This Interplayers production finds enough the laughs and heartbreak in Gurney’s script to keep the tradition alive. It’s a funny/serious stolen glimpse at how some people lived their upper-middle-class lives.

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At September 20, 2008 2:10 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

BoBo sez: A scene between Kalensky and Michael Maher that should have sizzled with sexual tension fizzled instead.

I would have said this about the birthday party scene between Anne Selcoe and Michael Maher.

The Dining Room is a truly enjoyable evening of theatre occasionally (but not severely) marred by the director's fondness for camp.


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