Stamford Theatre Works, Stamford
Oh, the agonies of the over-privileged! Thus the theme of A. R. Gurney’s “Children,” which has just opened at Stamford Theatre Works.
Like all of Gurney’s plays, “Children” takes an unflattering but still sympathetic look at the playwright’s own people—namely the upper-class WASPs (a term which one of his characters bemoans). He depicts a summer reunion at the family’s oceanside home (Nantucket? Martha’s Vineyard?), where they play out old grievances and dream new dreams—where siblings battle and a mother attempts damage control.
Gurney has always managed to make such stories interesting and such characters intriguing. But, somehow, this time around, the material, the plot, the characters, all seem so trivial! It may be the times in which we live. How can we care that the tennis court needs repairs, when we consider the demolished homes of New Orleans--or that one loses a tennis match when Gulf Coast lives have been ravished!
Not that these Gurney characters do not have real problems, stemming back to the earlier generation! But the fact is that they have a comfortable home, and the sea wall can easily be buttressed by spending a few dollars. Granted that a good comedy can serve the theater and its audiences well, providing needed escapism or a hilarious look at reality, but this particular one is simply irritating. In fact, the plot itself is irritating, based on lame, unconvincing events from the past which supposedly fuel the present.
There is no denying that Gurney knows how to make clever use of the dramatic form. “Children” has only four characters on stage--but a bevy of crucial family members, some 12 in all (plus two lovers and even a dead husband) are just off-stage, where they play tennis, swim, dine, make love, sit in parked cars, and change the course of events. In the fact the entire opening speech is made off-stage. The daughter, returning from an all-night session with her married lover, bids him a lingering good-night—or good morning. It’s a very practical play to stage, a play which requires only four performers to flesh out the much larger picture!
This particular production, under artistic director Steve Karp’s astute guidance keeps moving well enough to hold one’s attention, however annoying the circumstances. Performances are mostly competent, although the actors sometimes stumble over lines. Fletcher McTaggart, as the spoiled brat son who never grew up, plays his role so over the top that he is as irritating as the play itself. Actor, character and play all compete for that honor. But Gurney’s women come off better, both as written and as played by the actors. The daughter-in-law Jane is the most likeable member of the family, played with understated strength by Katherine Puma. And both Jennifer Dorr White, as the daughter, and Sarah Peterson, as the grande dame of the house, give solid performances.
In all, one wonders why Steve Karp, who is usually committed to dramas with strong political/social messages, chose to open his 2005-2006 season with this trivial piece. Trivial, trivial, trivial.
-- Irene Backalenick
Sept. 24, 2005