By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Sometimes a few orders of well-made appetizers can be as satisfying as a four-course meal. So it is with The Dining Room, now playing at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. A.R. Gurney's two-act play offers nibbles of story, several tasty characters and enough good lines to chew on to forgive the lack of a meaty plot.
In this comedy of table manners, the table itself serves as a central gathering place and as a metaphor for the stuffy cultural conventions of times gone by. Front and center in every scene is the big furniture, a formal dining suite of six curved-back chairs and a substantially sized, double-pedestal table behind which stands a tall built-in sideboard stacked with bone china, good silver, fine linen and a couple of Staffordshire bulldogs. (The elegant set design is by Rodney Dobbs.)
In unrelated scenes overlapping as they begin and end, we see family occasions from the 1930s to the 1980s unfold around the table. This is WASP-ville, U.S.A., the sort of upper-crust East Coast household that always employs a maid named Agnes and, depending on the stock market, a cook named Bertha. The generations of occupants sharing the dining room are what used to be called "the smart set," people called Winky, Binky and Standish who prize their hand-me-down Steuben and their pistol-handled table knives. They wear crests on their blue blazers, sign daughters up for debutante lessons and take great offense when the boys at the country club "make a remark" about old Uncle Henry's "bachelor attachments."
Each scene in The Dining Roomis a self-contained playlet. In one, children squeal at a 5-year-old's birthday party as a mom of one child and dad of another whisper plans for an adulterous tryst. In another, teenage girls sneak gulps of gin after school and complain about their awful parents. A Thanksgiving meal ends in shambles when an addled grandma insists she's at the wrong address. A starchy grandfather quizzes a grandson about why the young man needs an expensive prep school education to become a successful "self-made man." A grown daughter tearfully admits a failed marriage and a lesbian affair, hoping her uncaring father will welcome her back to the family home. Characters converse at the table, in front of and behind it, even under it. If the dining room walls on Beacon Hill could talk, these are the tales they would tell.
Sounds like standard theatrical gimmickry, but Gurney, who after this Pulitzer-nominated 1981 script went on to write Sylvia, Love Letters and Far East, is too clever not to make it interesting and at times laugh-out-loud funny. The real gimmick is that all 60 characters in The Dining Room are played by a cast of six. CTD's production, directed by Susan Sargeant, uses a wonderful ensemble, the best yet assembled for a show at this two-year-old theater. These performers often switch roles (and costumes) in the time it takes to walk in and out of a swinging door.
Ben Bryant, James Kille, Tom Lenaghen, Elise Reynard, Lulu Ward and Wendy Welch light up The Dining Room, playing all their snooty, upper-class toffs and below-stairs sufferers with enough heart and humor to make the characters likable. Lenaghen brings an easy, Fred MacMurray-style warmth to a long, uninterrupted scene in which a dying father gives his grown son (Kille) no-nonsense instructions for his funeral. The services, the dad says, should be at 3:30 p.m., late enough for his pals to get in a round of golf and still early enough that the family "won't be obliged to feed them." Lenaghen also shines in a lighter vignette in which a grandpa tells his trust-fund-happy grandson why Europe isn't worth the trip. "I took a trunkload of shredded wheat along," grumps Gramps, "and came home when it ran out."
Among the women in the cast, Lulu Ward is the standout. Sooner than later the Dallas theatrical community should build a little shrine to the talent of this woman, who jobs in for productions all over town. Playing glamorous ladies, tantrum-throwing children, bored housewives, disgusted kitchen help and the grandmother showing symptoms of Alzheimer's, Ward has so many fine moments in The Dining Room, it's impossible to single out just one. Over the past few years she's grown into a lovely, confident actress who, with a twitch of an eyebrow or a slump in her shoulders, can suddenly appear 20 years older or younger. The transformations she makes in Dining Room elicit delighted gasps from the audience.
For summertime entertainment, The Dining Room is just right. Call it theater lite. No heavy drama, no clunky set changes or overmiked singing to sit through. Just clever dialogue and good acting. And curtain up to curtain call, this show clocks in right at two hours including intermission (you can even bring a glass of wine or appletini back to your table to enjoy during the show). In a season bloated with many an overwrought three-hour epic, it's nice to find one that gets it done in plenty of time to go out afterward for coffee and dessert.