THERE ISN'T A spot on the varnished parquet floor. The polished brass of the electric candle chandelier gleams under the house lights. The wall below the chair rail is a conservative shade of Cabernet Sauvignon, with decorative wood molding (white, of course) and a beige-striped wallpaper (ornate, but not ostentatious). The oblong table is solid mahogany and seats six, center stage. The chairs are upholstered; the decor is 1920s.
A smiling Realtor welcomes us into the dining room, present day. It's the last time this room, with its hallway to the kitchen, its windows and doorways to implied indoor spaces and expansive outdoor views, will be anything resembling vacant.
Prolific contemporary playwright A.R. Gurney packs 56 characters into his formal dining area, calling on representatives from the last three-quarters of a century to deconstruct the interior architecture of the American family. You are where you eat, is one point of view -- for some this unchanging room is stifling, for others a comfort; some declare it coldly impersonal, oppressive, pretentious; for still others, it's harmlessly nostalgic, sentimental, rich, romantic, or the locus of ridiculous drama.
For us, Gurney's detailed writing provides a voyeuristic portal to lives both familiar and unknown, from the universal family hierarchies that exasperate the young and amuse the grown, to more specific commentaries on the "American way of life." Not surprisingly, the latter endeavors to include a wide social and economic stratum.
It's an ambitious undertaking for a two-hour play, requiring the action to move quickly. The Dining Room's two acts are broken down into sketches of five to 10 minutes each, following a structure that's linear without being strictly chronological. We move forward roughly from the Depression era to the complacent 1980s, lurching back or jumping ahead to maintain the loose, connecting thread between this menagerie of unrelated family members.
Further adding to the illusion of inter-relation is the mere cast of six that manages all of those 56 roles. We see the same rotation of faces (three male, three female), but their names and associations to one another, their ages and stations in life, remain in constant motion in contrast to their staid surroundings.
Donning a new persona every five minutes is no simple task, and it's one these hard-working actors handle with varying success. While there is a distracting tendency to overact, particularly in the sketches involving young children, there are also some terrific moments of comedy and drama. Live Theatre Workshop regular Linda Andresano moves easily from the patient reserve of upper- and middle-class domestic service to manipulative mom, to a delightfully flip parochial school rebel. She has a natural ease that's direct and believable, and as a result provides some of the play's most engaging characters. Her Aunt Harriet is a hoot.
Mark Hampton, in his second LTW performance, adapts to a host of archetypal heads-of-household, some of which -- like his curmudgeonly grandfather -- are a delight to watch (as long as you aren't the unfortunate ant under his magnifying glass). LTW newcomer Brendan Murphy similarly makes a promising debut with his droll psychiatrist; and JoDee Ann Towers ages dramatically into a palsy-stricken, hopelessly addled matriarch at a tense Thanksgiving dinner.
Director Amy Lehman-Almquist makes good decisions in both timing and situating her actors, and Gurney's clever and gently moralizing dialogue ensures this cascade of mundane information always has some interesting facet to follow. If Lehman-Almquist would rein in the unnecessary histrionics, we might laugh even more and squirm less.
Gurney, however, clearly intends us to squirm a little. While the majority of his play is couched in comedy, his insights are incisive. He paints an aloof American elite, with a narrow trajectory from autocratic to embarrassingly insensitive, and his middle classes are a materialistic, self-interested lot. He's searching for the raw nerve, and more than once he finds it and gives it an extra jab. He takes a fairly cynical view of the modern family, but isn't entirely without compassion, or hope. One of the best scenes he comes up with is of an exacting father dictating his funeral to his eldest son.
So it is that even as Gurney mourns the decline of the dining room tradition, he pokes fun at it as well. He hires an architect in Scene 2 to literally demolish and redesign it (in such a way, of course, that it bears no resemblance to his client's express wishes). In ways both comic and dramatic, Gurney suggests turnaround may not only be fair, but inevitable; that it is our nature to reject what we have, and desire what we don't, and the rest is all the pursuit of myth...all stolen liquor, illicit affairs, tea trays and finger bowls.
The Dining Room, by A.R. Gurney, continues through May 14 at Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd. Show time is 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $11, $10 for students and seniors. Call 327-4242 for tickets and information.