nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
August 4, 2006
A.R. Gurney's charming new memory play, Indian Blood, harkens back to another time in both content and form. The setting is Buffalo, New York, right after World War II. The citizens of the then-13th largest city in America are still riding the war's industrial boom, and feeling optimistic about their upstate burg becoming an even more thriving metropolis. Naturally, there are some naysayers: one character calls Buffalo "the mistake on the lake." Aside from him, though, everyone is mostly content with their emphatically WASP-ish and privileged way of life.
Everyone, that is, except Eddie, the teenage protagonist of Indian Blood. Smart and sweet, but also handy with a snarky quip and yearning to rebel, Eddie is on the verge of becoming what his father calls "a wiseguy." Eddie attributes his behavior to his "Indian blood." Inspired by the alleged Native American ancestry in his family's bloodline, Eddie has a ready made explanation for every anti-social outburst. Before long, everyone in the play can anticipate how Eddie is going to explain his latest social mishap so easily that it becomes a running gag.
Even though it successfully follows the beat of its own drum (pun intended), Indian Blood is reminiscent of another well-known memory play: Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs. Both plays share a common yesteryear gentility, and feature optimistic adolescent protagonists. They also share a number of stock characters, including the loving and long-suffering mother and the black sheep of the family. And, if Indian Blood doesn't quite reach (or even aim) for the career-defining heights that Simon achieved with Brighton Beach Memoirs, Gurney still proves there's more to him than meets the eye.
The story is set in motion by a lewd illustration Eddie draws in school one day (which is funny, but too graphic to describe here: let's just say it involves Injun Joe and Glinda the Good Witch in a compromising position), much to the distraction of his classmates, especially his goody-goody cousin, Lambert, who rats him out to their teacher. Such behavior is frowned upon in Buffalo's blue blood upper class, and Eddie is suspended for several weeks. His uptight, micromanaging father, Harvey, is mortified, and implores Eddie not to mention the suspension to Eddie's Grandmother (that's the character's actual name). An overly devoted mama's boy, Harvey is afraid to upset his elderly mother's delicate heart, and decides that the best explanation for Eddie's extended absence from school is to tell everyone he's doing independent study. But, Eddie's thirst for schoolboy vengeance on Lambert may get the better of him: no one gets his Indian blood boiling hotter. At one point, upon entering what he suspects may be their big showdown, Eddie admits, "I hear distant drums tonight!"
Indian Blood gets a lot of humorous mileage out of little things, thanks in part to its teenage protagonist: when trying to explain the picture he drew to a family member, Eddie handily saves himself by calling it a "picture of a man and woman in love." But, there's also the everyday small talk that hints at something deeper within Indian Blood's high society denizens: Harvey worries that Eddie may be ruining his reputation by attempting to romance "a Jewess" classmate at school. Such a comment is taken for granted so much among these characters that, within the context of the play, it comes across more as snobbery than bigotry. Their insular world doesn't extend to anyone outside their social circle. But, Eddie's Grandfather sees the writing on the wall. He anticipates that their prosperity will soon end, as many of Buffalo's big industries pack up and go elsewhere, in part because of their own snobbery. "We're a lost tribe. With peculiar old customs," he tells Eddie.
The production's overall aesthetic is also a throwback. Taking a cue from Our Town, set pieces and props are kept to a noticeable minimum: only chairs. Eddie explains this is because, while movies demand lots of literal objects, "plays require us to use our imagination." To that end, almost everything here is mimed: eating dinner, driving a car, playing the piano, etc. But, Indian Blood never feels minimalist or sparse. The few set pieces that set designer John Arnone uses are augmented beautifully by Leah Gelpe's projections, giving the audience a clear idea of where they are at all times. Costume designer Ann Hould-Ward and lighting designer Howell Binkley's respective contributions give the production a satisfying fullness.
Director Mark Lamos does graceful and easygoing work here. He keeps the play's wry, befuddled nature up front, and strikes just the right tone between its comedy and drama. He's also assembled a great ensemble cast, surely one of the best in town right now. Stage veteran John McMartin nearly steals the show with his sly comic turn as Eddie's Grandfather. Broadway songstress Rebecca Luker and Jack Gilpin give wonderfully nuanced performances as Eddie's parents. As Eddie's Grandmother, Pamela Payton-Wright dominates the stage with comically calculated frailty. Jeremy Blackman's steadfast brown-nosing as Lambert is superbly played, and Matthew Arkin and Katherine McGrath make the most of the small multiple roles they each play. Anchoring the production is a delightful and terrific lead performance by Charles Socarides as Eddie.
In the program notes, Gurney refers to his play's setting as a "lost, but still heart-warming world." Indeed. Take a walk down memory lane with this accomplished playwright, and let Indian Blood sweep you into a sweeter, more sincere time.