One can't think of a more deeply unfashionable playwright right now than A. R. Gurney. An American dramatist educated at Yale and formerly on the faculty of MIT, Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Jr., has made his name by lovingly charting the waning world of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. The very titles of his plays – The Dining Room, The Cocktail Hour – are redolent of his white, privileged terrain. You can almost see the ancestral portraits on the walls and hear the clink of ice cubes in Waterford crystal.
Gurney, now 84, had his heyday in the 1980s and '90s, when his work was frequently seen on Broadway and in North America's regional theatres. And his epistolary tearjerker Love Letters remains a favourite vehicle for senior celebrities, revived on Broadway as recently as last fall with a rotating cast that included Candice Bergen and Alan Alda. The lingering impression Gurney gives is that of a talented but facile writer, dancing in the long shadows of those great WASP chroniclers John Updike and, especially, John Cheever – the latter's work having been dramatized by Gurney on more than one occasion.
Revisiting The Dining Room, now getting a reappraisal at Soulpepper Theatre, doesn't dispel that impression. Gurney's breakthrough play, first produced in 1982, is a gentle, funny, affectionate ode to the vanishing WASP lifestyle. The tone is by turns ironic and elegiac as Gurney looks at the slow erosion of the white upper class through the microcosm of its dining rituals. It's an accomplished but slight piece of writing that panders to the nostalgia of its ideal audience – a WASP one, of course – even as it takes the occasional jab at its foibles.
So why revive it? If you're a repertory theatre like Soulpepper, the answer is obvious. The play, composed of many short, overlapping vignettes, contains some 50-odd characters, all embodied by just six actors. It's a great opportunity for a bunch of the company's regular players to show off their quick-change skills, as they go from portraying, say, a giddy kid at a birthday party in one scene to a doddering grandfather in the next.
That particular transformation is performed with élan by Diego Matamoros, whose evident delight in this two-hour acting exercise is shared by his co-stars: Derek Boyes, Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster, Jeff Lillico, Brenda Robins and Sarah Wilson. Their pleasure is our pleasure and, while they don't find any hidden profundities in the play, they do make watching it as painless as sipping a gin and tonic at the country club.
Gurney uses the decline of the formal family dining room as a metaphor for a way of life that was once highly structured and significant and has now grown useless and charmingly quaint. As the play skips back and forth over the decades of the 20th century, we see the dining room go from hallowed ground to a pointless waste of space. Characters keep trying to break it up or repurpose it. One of them, an architect (Lillico), likens it to a church, and indeed it's a place filled with solemn rites and sacred objects – precious silverware and bone china – where people come to commune, to celebrate or to confess. In one scene, an adult daughter (Lancaster) reveals to her father (Boyes) that she's a lesbian. In another, a timid young supplicant (Lillico) begs his self-made granddad (Matamoros) for money.
All the familiar WASP tropes are on display here, from the fanatical belief in etiquette to marital infidelities and emotional repression. In one of the longest and most telling scenes, a gruff father (Matamoros) details to his adult son (Boyes) his assiduous plans for his own funeral, in the course of which he also subtly gauges his son's love. It's beautifully conveyed by Matamoros, who is in particularly good form here.
Lancaster is the other standout in this fine cast, revealing a hilarious aptitude for impersonating a small child whose moods are writ large on her rubbery face. Wilson, meanwhile, excels at doing the sort of snooty suburban wife you'd encounter in an episode of Mad Men. Robins provides the brittle edge so necessary to the WASP character, and all three actresses play amusing variations on the role of the inevitable Irish maid. Lillico, with his preppy good looks, and Boyes, who can radiate the affable glow of the leisure class, prove a perfect fit for this material.
Joseph Ziegler directs with a graceful touch on a handsome dining-room set by Robin Fisher, who has also designed a series of witty period costumes. Richard Feren's sound design rings numerous changes on the show's wistful musical theme, the old U.S. Civil War ballad Aura Lea. You'll leave The Dining Room feeling as if you've just had a nice light supper. But if it's meat and potatoes you want, better to read a classic Cheever story like The Swimmer or The Sorrows of Gin.
The Dining Room continues to March 7 (soulpepper.ca)