The Dining Room
nytheatre.com review by Judith Jarosz
September 16, 2007
What a gem of a play The Dining Room is. It is not surprising that it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and had an original run of 18 months off-Broadway back in 1982. Nor is it surprising that regional theaters across the country have produced it. With one unit set and only six in the cast, it is accessible even for the most budget-conscious theater, and for the actors it is an emotion-filled buffet with each cast member portraying many parts of many different ages, backgrounds, and emotional states.
The entire play takes place in a dining room that represents many dining rooms in different homes across time, as we view multiple situations, celebrations and confrontations of families of the American Northeast. Prolific playwright A.R. Gurney gives us a loving look at family life through thick and thin as the importance and use of this room of the house falls in and out of fashion. The dialogue is delightfully touching and timeless, and there are added laughs to be had if you happen to be familiar with a particular mentality of that part of the country (my wonderful in-laws just happen to be New England WASPs).
This cast reminds me why I fell in love with the craft of acting in the first place. These six well-trained and extremely talented actors—Ann McDonough (who was also in the original cast!) Dan Daily, Claire Lautie, Timothy McCracken, Samantha Soule and Mark J. Sullivan—are the real thing. One scene may have an actor as a confused grandmother at a Thanksgiving gathering with Alzheimer's closing in on her, and the next scene may have the same actor run in as an exuberant eight-year-old at a birthday party. The whole cast does a marvelous job with the more than 50 roles, but special mention must be given to McDonough and Daily. Although they are the most "mature" actors in the cast in real life, when they are playing younger the years simply drop away and they are a joy and a marvel to watch no matter what age they are portraying. I was not surprised to read in his bio that Daily teaches acting. I hope that his students are smart enough to attend and appreciate a teacher who can walk it like he talks it. Director Jonathan Silverstein does a really wonderful job guiding all the action, keeping up an energized pace and smoothly overlapping some difficult scenes with creative blocking.
The lighting by Josh Bradford is lovely and helps to define the space for different poignant moments. Theresa Squire's simple yet stylish costumes move smoothly from one era to the next. I found the sound design choices by Daniel Baker to be a little dull, but my one real confusion is a choice of set designer Dana Moran Williams. The dining room itself is handsome, but for some reason Williams has selected a large, rather loud painting of autumn tree branches for a backdrop which I feel distracts from the action. Still, I have not been this satisfied as an audience member for some time. Hurrah for the Keen Company for wisely choosing to give this play a 25th anniversary production here in New York.