Monday, March 2, 2015

Theater Review: The Dining Room -- Playhouse on Park

EzraBarnes, AnnieGrier, SusanHaefner, JayWilliamThomas, SusanSlotoroff, SeanHarris Photo: Rich Wagner
Watching the Changing Dynamics of a Family Meal in The Dining Room
By Lauren Yarger
Several decades of family interaction play out against the scene of The Dining Room in an upper middle class home in A.R Gurney’s play continuing the mainstage series at Playhouse on Park.

An ensemble cast of five actors (Ezra Barnes, Susan Haefner, Sean Harris, Jay William Thomas, Annie Grier, and Susan Slotoroff) portrays multiples characters in 18 vignettes with timelines sometimes overlapping. The posh dining room (simply set by Christopher Hoyt and lighted by Christopher Jones ) is the focus for all the scenes.

The first has a brother and sister quibbling about who will get the dining room set following the breakup of the household. We discover the dining room has witnessed a number of sibling moments over the years, including a brother and sister trying desperately to win the attention and approval of their uninterested and exacting father.

There also is a son who discovers his mother’s affair, two school friends raiding the family’s liquor supply while parents are gone, a rebellious daughter who stands up to her mother’s social demands, a woman who irks her husband by not showing proper respect for the antique table by pounding away at a typewriter to complete her master’s thesis and a poignant meeting as a father relays instructions for his funeral (including, of course, bringing guests back to the dining room for food) to his loving son.

We also meet a string of maids who serve and clear endless tea times, meals and special occasions. Through them, Gurney most notably makes his commentary about the vanishing culture of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The play has a nostalgic, sad feeling in the vein of looking at fading scenes from American life, with a few moments of humor included. (A couple of women seated nearby squealed with delight and laughter throughout, so maybe there are more than just a few moments).

This production is hard to stage because of the many roles being played by the same actors. While Director Sasha Bratt aids the process by using actors who don’t like each other, it isn’t enough to overcome a sense of confusion despite some costuming hints (like aprons for the maids) by Demara Cabera.

At intermission, audience members were asking each other who was who and trying to figure out the relationships between them. “No, that couldn’t have been his mother,” one woman argued, “because she was his sister….”  “No, that was the other family,” said another audience member trying to help. “No, no, that was the same people, only in the past,” offered another.

The show program does include character identification and a scene breakdown, which are helpful, but there needs to be sharper differentiation between characters and tighter definition between current and past times, often taking place simultaneously on stage, to avoid head scratching.

Standing out is Haefner in the role of a maid (we see her age and change in demeanor over the years) and as “Aunt Harriet” giving her photographer nephew, Tony, lessons table etiquette, so he can capture this wonder of the past for his archeology term paper.

See it through March 8 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford.-860-523-5900 x10; www.playhouseonpark.org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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