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Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

The Dining Room
Westport Country Playhouse

Also see Fred's reviews of Looped and Good News!

A Separate Peace
Keira Naughton and Jake Robards
As The Dining Room evolves and unveils itself at Westport Country Playhouse through May 18th, one cannot help admire the six actors who take on fifty-something roles. A.R. Gurney's 1981 play about WASP culture and family is given a fresh rendering by director Mark Lamos and designer Michael Yeargan who combine to create influential set choices.

The stage is bathed in a lavender/gray hue and dimly lit at the outset by Stephen Strawbridge. What follows is a play during which the ensemble group, in various configurations, runs through one scene after another for 90 minutes. The play is clever and tart—a satire on white Anglo Saxon Protestant society. Gurney is a Connecticut resident who writes about people who might very well be living in or near Westport.

Some scenes catch more cogently than others and a few at the beginning of this theater evening are not fully engaging. This is a minor quibble since Gurney's writing is razor sharp and, ultimately, exacting and so thoughtful. This is about couples; and parents/children; hired help for the family and so forth. Yet, it is not until the final scene that dinnerware and sparkling drinking glasses appear. Until then, all is centered around the table but actions are mimed. Director Lamos, in this regard, makes an excellent choice.

During one of the more telling and moving sequences, actress Keira Naughton plays an aging matriarch, one whose memory is all but gone. When the men who are important to her sing "Aura Lee," the civil war song about a young woman, she briefly recalls both the music and reality. She will then slip backward: touching and, to many of us, familiar. Naughton will listen but then say, "Lovely but now I simply must go home. Mother gets very nervous when I'm not home for tea."

That particular vignette dissolves when Naughton and Heidi Armbruster appear as school girls, their neckties undone. With their long blonde hair streaming down their backs, the adolescent women will drink—gin, vodka, and Fresca.

This is a cast of Broadway caliber actors including Chris Henry Coffey, Jake Robards, Charles Socarides, and Jennifer Van Dyck in addition to those previously mentioned. No weak links here.

Late in the play Naughton, who is now a mother with children but separated from her husband, comes to see Robards, playing her father. She is desperate to return to the home of her childhood but he balks. She pleads with him and reveals further complexity in her life; all of this lessens the likelihood that he can imagine her presence.

Thanks to costumer Jane Greenwood, all of the actors look very much the part of those who lived in this American sector during, one gathers, the 1960s and 1970s. Men wear striped ties and blazers while women's wardrobe includes classy skirts. Within the understated tones of the set, these people (a subset of Americana which one of the characters is actually studying) move with fluency and ease. Whether the upper crust WASP unit is authentic, grounded, and aware of context is open to question.

Gurney has written with enviable dexterity. It would be easy to believe that he composed three hours or more of such dialogue and whittled it down to a manageable hour and a half. Much might have been left, figuratively, on the cutting room floor. He could have had reams of typewritten pages that might have comprised six or eight more scenes. I am not certain whether the play has previously been staged with an intermission but it flows smoothly and rapidly without one.

The Dining Room continues at Westport Country Playhouse through May 18th. For tickets, visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call (203) 227-4177.


Also see the current theatre schedule for Connecticut & Beyond

- Fred Sokol



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