A.R. Gurney has always been one of Interplayers’ (and Spokane’s) favorite playwrights. This production of 1982’s “The Dining Room” shows us why.
Gurney is funny, he’s creative, and he has a knack for speaking directly about the strange anthropological habits of modern Americans. Well, at least Americans of the upper-middle-class variety.
In one New England formal dining room, Gurney shows us a kid’s birthday party, a stiff holiday dinner, a crisis involving a perceived family “insult,” an illicit love affair, a lesson in formal etiquette and a man planning his own funeral. And that’s just a sample.
I am immensely pleased – and somewhat relieved – to say that this Interplayers production, directed by Karen Kalensky and featuring a talented ensemble cast, is of excellent professional caliber.
Relieved, because there is nothing like a top-quality piece of theater to make us forget about Spokane’s recent theater troubles. Two Spokane theater companies have bit the dust, but “The Dining Room” is the perfect reminder that all is not lost.
The best thing about this show, besides Gurney’s clever and imaginative script, is the ensemble cast. This is an especially demanding show because of its structure: 57 characters wander in and out of the same dining room in less than two hours. Some characters are balky toddlers, some are young Irish servants, some are addled 80-year-old matriarchs. These actors must make us believe in them all.
I already knew that some of these actors were up to the challenge. Reed McColm further cements his position as one of Spokane’s creative treasures, with a dizzying series of performances as a smug patriarch in a blazer, a cranky old duffer and a toddler who breaks into a hilarious, nearly silent tantrum about every 20 seconds. His accents, his body language, his gestures – everything works toward creating a full character, time after time.
Most of the other cast members are equally inspired. Bethany Hart, a recent Washington State University grad, is a joy to watch in characters ranging from a snotty teenager to a confused old woman. Her technique is flawless. I was also impressed with Thomas Stewart, who was convincing as both an eager young boy and a middle-age man determined to defend his brother against an insult. (The insult? Someone made a crack about his, ahem, bachelorhood.)
Kalensky and Anne Selcoe each contributed about a dozen vivid characters. The only actor who seemed a bit stiff and stilted was Michael Mahar.
Kalensky has a wonderful acting presence, but her bigger accomplishment here is her directing. This can’t be an easy play to direct because it has so many characters and so many abrupt changes of scene. Yet the production flows smoothly, the scenes are crisply delivered, and the transitions are seamless. The ages and identities of the characters are not always telegraphed through the costumes; Kalensky often leaves it up to the actors to reveal who they are. That was part of the fun.
Best of all, the actors seem to understand Gurney’s message and how best to convey it. Gurney’s message is not simply about the decline of the American formal dining room; it’s really about how American families have changed. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
Gurney signals his true feelings, I suspect, in the final scene, touchingly staged by Kalensky. We see happy, well-dressed people enjoying the sophisticated pleasure of a formal, adult dinner party.
This, to put it mildly, beats wings and nachos in front of the TV.
“The Dining Room” continues through Oct. 4 at Interplayers. Call (509) 455-PLAY for tickets.