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December 6, 2013

TT: The ties that blind

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I report enthusiastically on two A.R. Gurney productions, the premiere in New York of Family Furniture and a Boston revival of The Cocktail Party. Here's an excerpt.

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To be prolific is to be uneven. A.R. Gurney has written a lot of plays in the past decade, some of them good, others less so, but none quite so fine as the ones that won him a permanent place in the history of American theater. So I rejoice to report that his newest play, "Family Furniture," is exactly that fine--and that its distinguished author is 83 years old. Not since 1995 and "Sylvia" has Mr. Gurney given us so penetrating and disciplined a play.

"Family Furniture" is a exceptionally well-cast, somewhat longish one-act play (long enough that I think it might possibly profit from being performed with an intermission) that starts out at a gallop and moves unswervingly to its stark, sad conclusion. Four of the five characters are members of a family of WASPs from upstate New York that is sitting on a secret, which is that the mother (Carolyn McCormick) appears to be sleeping with one of their neighbors behind the back of her stuffy, seemingly oblivious husband (Peter Scolari). The children (Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Ismenia Mendes) are appalled, while the son's Jewish girlfriend (Molly Nordin) thinks that they ought to force the affair out into the open.

Those are the cards in Mr. Gurney's hand--most of them, anyway--and he plays them with enviable skill, triggering a string of surprises in the second half that up the ante considerably. But "Family Furniture" is not a family melodrama: It's a Terence Rattigan-like tale of strong but largely unspoken emotions, and the penny-plain simplicity of Thomas Kail's production (which is played on a near-bare stage in a 74-seat Off-Broadway house) brings us close enough to the characters to feel each twinge of their collective pain....

In a happy coincidence, the Huntington Theatre Company is mounting a superior revival of "The Cocktail Hour," the 1988 play in which Mr. Gurney cemented the reputation for excellence that he had won in 1982 with "The Dining Room." It's a quasi-autobiographical comedy with a Pirandello-like twist in which an angry young playwright (James Waterston) comes home to Buffalo to inform his horrified family (Maureen Anderman, Pamela J. Gray and Richard Poe) that he has just written a play about them called (naturally) "The Cocktail Hour." The plot is not altogether unlike that of "Family Furniture," but it's played for laughs and ends in what the aggressively genial father, played to perfection by Mr. Poe, calls "an appreciative mood."...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted December 6, 2013 12:00 AM

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