by Maggie Kulbokas
"The Dining Room", which opened in New York in 1982 and earned Gurney a Pulitzer Prize nomination, focuses on the one room in the house that was once the hub of American family life--the dining room.
The play opens on a nicely appointed dining room furnished with a large table and chairs and a credenza. The home belongs to a rather well to do family as made evident by the furniture, trim work and ornate chandelier.
Gurney wrote the play as a series of short vignettes each a scene of family life. Although unrelated, the scenes form a bigger picture by showing a fading part of American society, the privileged upper-middle class. "The Dining Room" is set in a time when families of certain means sat down to breakfast, lunch and dinner in the formal dining room. Some scenes are witty, some sad, others meaningful and touching.
Today, the sit-down dinner is becoming archaic for many families, even those who are well to do. Many yearn for the seeming simplicity of life before two-income households and latch-key kids. But Gurney leaves it up to the audience to decide, how important is the disappearance of "the dining room"? Although many of the scenes are poignant, he pokes fun at the sometimes inane concerns of the privileged. Is proper silverware placement, finger bowls and country club gossip really all that important? In one scene, a nephew interviews his aunt for an anthropology class. While other students were studying ancient cultures, he chose to document the vanishing American Northeastern WASP--much to his aunt's horror.
The scene direction was inventive, the vignettes often overlapped, as one scene ends, another scene had already been staged and was ready to begin. The transition between scenes was subtle and smooth giving the play continuity despite the fact each of the scenes was unrelated.
The play stars six wonderful actors who combined, play over 50 different roles: mothers, fathers, giddy teenagers, energetic youngsters, elderly grandparents and domestic servants among others. It was truly amazing to watch them switch gears so quickly and effortlessly.
Tony winner Harriet Harris headlined the group. Ms. Harris is easily recognized for her many television appearances on shows such as "Frazier", "Six Feet Under", "The X-Files" and this year's runaway hit, "Desperate Housewives". Personally, I loved her in the "Five Mrs. Buchanans". The "Dining Room" also featured the well-known Broadway performer and fellow Tony winner, Brian Murray.
The most entertaining and energetic members of the cast were Michael McDonald and Stephanie Weir, both comedy performers probably best known as cast members on the irreverent "Mad TV". Their timely improv skills were exceptionally well suited for a performance of this nature. McDonald's expressions and voices made it easy to accept his portrayal of a young schoolboy. Rounding out the cast were stage actors Jeremy Webb and the lovely and promising Prentiss Benjamin, daughter of Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss.
Richard Chambers's scenic design was enhanced by Jesse Lowenstein's realistic lighting. Margaret Weedon's costumes made for an easy and quick transition for the actors from character to character.
The Cape Playhouse has done it again with a dramatic yet witty play and truly talented actors.