Don't ask why a family this fortunate can't afford furniture. A.R. Gurney's new play at Primary Stages, Indian Blood, begins with a large, well-tooled clan arranged around a dining table that's well, invisible. This image, dispelled immediately when the youngest of the brood breaks away to address us, is the first sign that this chaotic, comic 90-minute evening will attempt to challenge your perceptions of both family and furnishings.
For young Eddie (Charles Socarides), relatives can be just as evanescent as tables and chairs - he's likely to remember only what and who is most important. But anyone can be a set piece in the play of his mind, which he wants to narrate for us as a look at the verities of his heritage. And when the curtain comes up on the holiday season of 1946 Buffalo, the scene is of a microcosm for a post-WWII United States about to experience irrevocable change.
This is hardly new territory for Gurney, who's explored in many plays the evolution and diminishing lifespan of that unique American species, the WASP. That the first 75 minutes or so of Indian Blood deal with this exclusively (and wittily) isn't much of a surprise. Nor is it that shocking when it's eventually revealed that Gurney's also tackling a big issue of contemporary relevance (as has been his recent dramatic wont) that needs most of those 75 minutes to subconsciously insinuate itself in your mind.
Whether those two plays can happily cohabit is something else entirely. Gurney does his best to draw parallels between the WASP community's confrontations with the assimilation of different races and cultures, specifically the Native American ancestry that is both a part of Eddie and his cousin Lambert (Jeremy Blackman), and which might explain the ongoing animosity between the two: Each is distantly related to an Indian tribe that was at war with the other's tribe. (Eddie's relationship with the grandfather with whom that bloodline began, played by John McMartin, is understandably better.)
It soon becomes obvious that Gurney wants us to consider whether Eddie's Indian blood or his WASP blood is more responsible for his rebellious teenage behavior, which primarily manifests itself in disruptive artistic tendencies that result in his drawing Mark Twain's Injun Joe and of L. Frank Baum's Glinda the Good Witch in a compromising position. But as Eddie can excuse his behavior by blaming his Indian blood, so it seems he can blame his own social discomfort on his (literally) big-hearted grandmother (Pamela Payton-Wright), whose iron grip on antiquated tradition is slowly suffocating her family, especially Eddie's father (Jack Gilpin) and mother (Rebecca Luker), who are individually waging their own Revolutionary Wars against her.
Before all this comes to a head at a party at Grandma's house on Christmas night, Indian Blood soars as a delightful and gracefully coy boulevard comedy of manners along the lines of Gurney's iconic The Dining Room and The Cocktail Hour. But when that party brings about the culmination of the evening's character threads (there's barely a plot, per se) as merely an opportunity for preachy speechifying about immigration, the play's tone shifts from genial to didactic, upsetting much of the playful good of earlier on. Indian Blood doesn't earn this hairpin turn toward the topical, at least as elicited here from that ongoing Eddie-Lambert feud and the tired trope of a parlor game unveiling all the secrets everyone would prefer remain hidden.
While Mark Lamos's direction throughout glows like a period black-and-white comedy, his staging of this section - including blatant lighting tricks (the designer is Howell Binkley) and not-so-furtive glances between various conspirators - spells out much of what barely needs to be spoken. As in many Gurney works, the characters suffer similarly, becoming more prone to explicitly spelling out the play's themes as the evening goes on. Eddie, especially, is more interested in excusing John Arnone's sparse physical production as a comment on Our Town's theatrical minimalism rather than just letting the text support Gurney's contentions about the historical uncertainty of theatre and family alike.
Most of the actors thrive on playing their characters' present social inevitabilities, to sparkling cumulative effect. McMartin's effusive modernity is a superb match for Payton-Wright's old-fashioned, maternal stuffiness, while Luker's prim, reluctant revolutionary spirit is ideally in sync with the Gilpin's unsteady stolidity. Matthew Arkin is a buoyant charmster as Eddie's intrusive Latin teacher and as his breezy bachelor uncle, and Katherine McGrath brings a surprising touch of grace to a handful of different domestics. Only Socarides and Blackman, who as Eddie and Lambert have no roles in history (and are working too hard playing youthful to convey anything but overeager desperation), seem out of place in this otherwise vivid family portrait.
But they, and everyone else, make all they can of the opportunities they're offered. No, the actors aren't at their best when Gurney insists on doing the talking himself. But even at its most unnecessarily obvious and morally instructional, Indian Blood is the kind of relevant comedy at which Gurney excels, and which happily meets more goals than it misses. As one character says, "Plays are like algebra, where you work with what you're given," and when you're given a play that's so often this good, who needs furniture, too?