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Theater Review: Drama And Humor In Westport’s "Dining Room"

WESTPORT — An elegant realtor is showing off the gracious old formal dining room to a harried corporate exec who has one day to find a house for his family in this, his latest  posting.

“Look at this beautiful dining room,” she chirps. “I grew up in a dining room just like this one.”

“I did too,” he recalls. Together they spend a few minutes sharing happy memories.

“So wouldn’t this just be perfect?” she asks. “We could probably get them to come down on the price…  Can’t you see your family settled in this room?”

No he can’t, he tells her. They all eat at different times, in the kitchen, where the microwave is. There’s no point to having a dining room like this any more, and sadly they trail out the door as a brother and sister come in from another entrance. 

They are squabbling over which of them is going to get the dining room furniture. Mother told them to divide up her things between them. Why do you want it? She demands. It would never fit in your crummy little apartment.

Well it won’t fit in your condo either, he snaps. You’ll just sell it, she realizes. You’ll have some old man in who buys used furniture and you’ll sell it.

We realize that the squabbling is simply a continuation of hostilities dating back to their childhood, when they ate their meals in this room… And so the play begins.

Written thirty years ago, A.R. Gurney’s The Dining Room wrapped a season opening production at Westport Country Playhouse on May 19. The work richly explores the territory he has carved out and claimed as his own: the vanishing traditions of the American WASP, a social class who sent their sons to prep schools and their daughters to cotillions, who drank cocktails at the country club, and who wore ties and jackets to dinner in a dining room where they were waited on by uniformed maids who served lavish meals prepared by temperamental cooks.

It was over these meals that cultural norms were instilled in children, through clear expectations expressed by self-assured parents. Good manners, social prejudices, the proper treatment of servants were all part of the value system that shaped Gurney’s favorite subjects. Thus the dining room is the venue that links several dozen vignettes performed non-stop by a company of six actors, over a 90-minute span.

With minor changes in clothing the three men and three women morph into widely different characters, from small children at a birthday party to elderly grandparents, sullen teenagers to rigidly polite servants,  adulterous couples to grown brothers singing a capella to soothe their mother in the throes of dementia. Confused, bemused, rebellious, rowdy, self-serving, smug, and wryly self-aware, the personalities are sharply etched with humor and pathos by turns.

It’s all a slice of life from the not too distant past, but the past nonetheless. The dining room was the center where the rules were taught that shaped a specific group of people, groomed to believe that they were entitled to hold positions of power because they observed those rules. But  social  changes have opened the membership of the country club and the corridors of leadership to non-WASPS, so the rules no longer apply. Thus there is no need for a dining room.

The sextet of Heidi Armbruster, Chris Henry Coffey, Keira Naughton, Jake Robards, Charles Socarides  and Jennifer Van Dyck  went through their paces in a seamless tour de force that was highly enjoyable to watch. Director Mark Lamos and playwright Gurney are longtime friends, and in this production they served each other very well.

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