The Dining Room
by A. R. Gurney
Theatre UNB, Memorial Hall
A. R. Gurney's The Dining Room is not a play that many people know much about, though often they recognize its title. Spectacularly successful at its 1982 Broadway opening, it's become something of an exercise for community and university theatre companies, in part because it offers such a wonderful range of clearly-defined, rich roles (literally dozens of them), and also because, put on with skill and attention, it can still be funny and occasionally touching. Even more, it can be a kind of object lesson in dramatic conventions. It was far from the first play to employ overlapping scenes in the same setting -- characters from some different time period come on stage while the previous scene is still going on, and even the dialogue sometimes overlaps -- but I suspect it was one of the most influential. I wonder if Tom Stoppard might have written the amazing Arcadia if Gurney hadn't, ten years before, used the convention to such powerful effect.
One reason it isn't more widely known -- the 1985 movie version has dropped from sight entirely -- may be its subject matter. An affectionate but also powerfully sardonic look at the American petty bourgeoisie of New England in the middle of the twentieth century, it sees the pretensions, self-deceptions, and delusions of the people who gather in this one dining room over a half-century of history as far more important than they seem now, a quarter-century after the play's opening.
The play is entirely set in that one dining room in the house of a typical well-to-do New England family, and offers a mosaic of interrelated and often overlapping scenes; some funny, some touching, some savagely satiric. In the original production, and in many since, the fifty-odd parts are taken by six actors; in Tania Breen's entertaining and engaging Theatre UNB production, there are a dozen young actors, clearly feeling challenged by, and successful at, the task of transforming themselves from one stock character to another at a moment's notice. What holds the play together -- in the absence of plot or character development -- is the unremitting focus on the nature of the upper middle class life which was built around, but has lost sight of or even rejected, the family dinner at the dining room table. One of the more memorable scenes involves a young college student interviewing his aunt about how people ate in such a dining room. When she discovers that he's not interested because he wants to emulate that sort of culture, but, rather, is studying, as part of an anthropology course, "the eating habits of various vanishing cultures," she -- of course -- throws him out.
It's a particularly nice example of the basic strategy of Gurney's play, in that we are invited to feel two absolutely contrary reactions at the same time. Yes, we see the pretentious, class-ridden phoniness of the culture -- "the maid would take away the salad plate," Aunt Harriet explains, "and then she'd put down the finger-bowls" -- and at the same time we understand exactly why she'd find the condescension of her nephew and his professor appalling. We are absolutely on her side as she explodes, "Vanishing culture, my eye! I forbid you to mention my name in the classroom . . . And you can tell that professor of yours, I've got a good mind to drive up to Amherst, with this pistol-handled butter knife on the seat beside me, and cut off his anthropological balls!" Throughout the play, we're shown that it's just a fantasy that the dining room is the center of family life. We watch an appalling father oppress his kids about their grammar and their lives, and we see one after another "younger generation" unable to see the use of the dining room, folding laundry or writing term papers on the table, being appalled at the idea of entertaining their friends there. And at the same time, in scene after scene, we see the way in which the family does, or can, center here: in one scene a family has to deal, somehow, over a holiday family dinner, with the aging mother's dementia, as she fails to recognize her family and insists on going "home"; in another an adulterous affair is negotiated over a family birthday party. And the evening comes together with a fantasy of the perfect dinner party: entirely unreal, but touchingly gorgeous and attractive. Do we see that it's all a fraud? Of course, but what a wonderful fantasy. Is the play an anthropological study of a dying culture? Sure. Do we share Aunt Harriet's view that there's something precious about all that bone china, fingerbowls, manners and elegance? Of course.
The challenge for a group of university students a quarter-century on, and in another country, is to make all this matter, and to help us see, with their bodies and voices, why it should matter. Under Tania Breen's direction, UNB Theatre does as effective a job of this as I can imagine. The most immediate challenge -- keeping the rhythm of those separate scenes going without letting the audience's attention lapse -- is met almost flawlessly. In fact, I only noticed one moment when I felt a slackening of my attention: at the end of the scene where the unruly birthday party kids are hustled off to the living room for games, there seemed to me just a bit too much of a pause before "Grandfather" comes on for a wonderful, cynical take on the downside of wealth ("Everyone who sits down with me wants something. Usually it's money"). In most productions, this would make some sense, as the role of Grandfather is regularly taken by someone who's just been one of the kids, but in this case I didn't quite see why he wouldn't come on exactly as the kids bustled off. In fact, though, this really makes no serious difference: the pace of the entire production is polished and effective. It's complemented by the wonderful blocking, solving triumphantly the problems posed by the staging (essentially, it is set up as theatre in the round, in yet another demonstration of how to take as inhospitable a space as Memorial Hall and make it actually work).
One of the reasons such a script is a great choice for a university production is the opportunity to give a substantial number of actors a chance at a range of short, clearly defined roles, and still be working toward the kind of audience involvement we expect from a full-length, coherent play. The challenge, of course, is that the individual scenes need to be self-contained: that is, they have to be understood to be pointed and to work almost on their own: yes, they're part of a larger consideration of the nature of this society, but none of them actually build toward anything else, or arise out of an earlier scene. So characters need to be almost instantly recognizable: virtually every one is a type, even a caricature. A danger of that situation, of course, is that actors will be tempted to exaggerate, and to play entirely for short term responses. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this production is the way Tania Breen has shaped it so that that doesn't happen. If we miss some of the more brutal satire because of this, at the same time we're invited to be more conscious of the play's ambivalence about its subject.
As is often the case with solid student productions, the main focus here is on ensemble rather than individual performances, and although some particular scenes stick in the memory -- I especially came away with Brianne Gulley's outraged Aunt Margaret in my mind, for example, and Matt Ralph's overbearing father ("Seeds can wreak havoc with the digestion," he admonishes the servant who's not strained his orange juice sufficiently, "They can take root. And grow"), and Michael Holmes-Lauder's put-upon, cynical grandfather ("Go on. Enjoy yourselves, all of you. Leave town, travel, see the world. It's bound to happen. And you know who's going to be sitting here when you get back? Some Irish fella, some Jewish gentleman is going to be sitting right at this table. Saying the same thing to his grandson. And your grandson will be back at the plow!") -- it's important to be clear that this production is a triumph of organization and ensemble work. One good example is the unruly birthday party, overseen by a couple negotiating their extramarital affair while sharing party supervision duties: the children at the party are wonderfully distracting without allowing the audience to lose track of what the real issue is, while Jenny Thompson and Kyle MacKenzie as the beleaguered couple keep the focus clearly on their relationship. Or the final fantasy dinner party, with the guests chattering away and our attention clearly on Brianne Gulley's enraptured fantasizer.
As always, there were moments when important lines were lost because the student actor didn't quite project enough to compensate for the fact that her back is to half the audience, and I wasn't always sure the lighting changes made sense (that may well have been a problem with the technology, which had an unfortunate crash at the start of the opening show), but the basic challenge of Gurney's script -- how do you sustain audience involvement in what is, after all, twenty separate scenes -- was met triumphantly by director Tania Breen, by Mike Johnston's usual fine, solid set and lighting (I especially admired the way a scene under the table was lit) and by the whole well-disciplined company.
If we didn't know before why so many new houses don't actually have dining rooms any more, we have a pretty good idea now. And why we might feel just a touch badly about it.