By Karen Isaacs
A. R. Gurney is one of those playwrights who is often underestimated and underappreciated,
His plays usually focus on WASPs — White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. You know, the ones who controlled the world for large parts of the 19th and 20th century, who went to boarding schools, joined the country clubs and followed a code of reticence and politeness. They are considered a dying breed and for many, none too soon.
Yet their very reticence and good manners make you want to tunnel below the surface to see what is really going on.
The Dining Room which is getting a very nice production at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through March 8, is just that kind of play.
The characters are well-bred and well-educated. They try to follow the rules of society and their friends. Their lives have many rules.
In this play, Gurney has created a series of exquisite vignettes that range from the 1920s to the 1980s, all centered around that most important of rooms in the home: the dining room, where the family met each night for dinner, where parties were held and which, in our less formal lives has become less important. Now we eat at kitchen islands, breakfast bars and everywhere else in the house.
The six person cast plays multiple roles — from a family maid, to children, parents and even grandparents.
What is remarkable is how Gurney, with minimal lines, shows us not only a situation or event but also reveals the characters and emotions of the people involved.
Take the scene in which an architect (Sean Harris) tries to convince his psychiatrist client (Ezra Barnes) to totally destroy the dining room, converting it into an office and waiting room. As he describes his vision, you can see the hidden tension in the architect’s face and body — you know he wants to destroy the room because of his experiences in the dining room. Or in another scene, a mother (Susan Haefner) manipulates her teenage daughter to reject an invitation from an aunt to attend the theater rather than the junior assembly. And there are the affairs. One scene takes place amidst a young child’s birthday party. As the mother orchestrates the refreshments and the children clamor for attention, the father of one of the young boys arrives. We soon recognize that the two are more than friends as they obliquely discuss their impossible situations.
The scenes make us laugh and feel sad — as the Thanksgiving dinner that the adult children and their wives have with the son’s mother, who fails to recognize them and demands to be “taken home.”
The cast of six does a good job of slipping into and out of characters of all ages and positions. From the smart aleck teenage boy (Jay Williams Thomas) who suspects his mother of having an affair with the father’s partner.
The cast — Barnes, Harris, Thomas, Haefner and Susan Slotoroff and Annie Grier do a good job of quickly sketching their characters. Director Sasha Brätt uses moves the cast on the somewhat awkward thrust stage effectively.
This may not be the best production of this fine play I’ve ever seen, but it is a good production of The Dining Room, and well worth seeing.
The Dining Room is at Playhouse on Park,244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT through March 8. For tickets visit playhouseonpark.org or call 860-523-5900.