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BWW Review: THE DINING ROOM at Square One Theatre Company

BWW Review: THE DINING ROOM at Square One Theatre Company

THE DINING ROOM by A. R. Gurney opened last weekend at Square One Theatre Company in Stratford. This entertaining play has all the elements that make it perfect for this theater company. A strong ensemble of six actors take on a variety of roles in a series of vignettes that are humorously, and sometimes poignantly portrayed in an upper middle-class dining room throughout various points in history. This comedy of manners is meant to illustrate the dying lifestyle of wealthy WASPs, from the oh-so-proper households of the 1920's through the depression and war years, to modern times. The dining room itself becomes a symbol of the dying middle class, as it changes from being the center of family life, to a spare room, and finally to a forgotten relic of the past.

Under the skillful direction of Tom Holehan, the actors move seamlessly throughout the play, with vignettes sometimes overlapping as the stage is set by some cast members while other actors are playing out their scene downstage. The set design by Robert Mastroni also adds to the smooth transitions between sketches, with various props added or taken away to properly delineate the time frame of the scene, which are not played out in chronological order. Costumes by Gaetana Barbano-Grinder also help to pinpoint where in history the scene takes place. On paper it sounds complicated but it is a wonder and a joy to watch.

Of course, none of these changes would work without a top-notch cast, who not only set the transitions, but take on varying roles throughout the vignettes with aplomb. Each play adults, children, serving staff, and others, differentiating their characters through not only speech and accent, but through energy, posture, and body language. This strong ensemble includes Ryan Hendrickson, Josie Kulp, Bruce Murray, Priscilla Squiers, Danielle Sultini, and David Victor.

Certain vignettes worked better than others, although this is not because of the actors' performances, which are all excellent. I especially liked the ones that were played for humor. For instance, there is a scene where a young man (Ryan Hendrickson) is taking pictures as an older relative (Danielle Sultini) displays her dining room place setting complete with Waterford crystal, finger bowls, real silverware and Irish linen. He explains, to her complete horror and dismay, that he is taking pictures for an anthropology project on the dying WASP civilization.

Another scene broadly played for its humorous context involves a dithering woman (again, Danielle Sultini) who has to delay dinner because her husband (Ryan Hendrickson) got a phone call, and she just doesn't know what to do. The phone call sends the man rushing out to 'the club' to defend the honor of his family after another member, Binky, insults his brother - and oh dear, fisticuffs may be needed. This particular scene had the audience roaring.

Other scenes struck a more poignant turn, showing younger siblings (Ryan Hendrickson and Josie Kulp) bickering over who inherits the dining room after their mom is moved to Florida, or another where three brothers (Bruce Murray, Ryan Hendrickson, and David Victor) have to sing in beautiful three part harmony to calm their mother who is agitated and clearly in the throes of dementia.

Still other scenes struck a nerve as characters' wealth, sense of entitlement, and privilege were all on display. Bruce Murray excellently portrays a particularly patrician gentleman who sits at the table and condescendingly and patronizingly chastises the maid for serving orange juice with a seed in it. Naturally, my sympathies were with the maid. When this proper gentleman goes on to explain to his son why the government should not hand out money to those suffering during the Depression because no one will want to work, I immediately disliked the man for his particular political views. The final scene has actress Priscilla Squiers setting the table and wistfully fantasizing about a dinner party with everyone they like and all of the upscale trappings, an excellent cook in the kitchen and two maids to serve, just like the good old days. It's all a bit much.

This is the brilliance of Gurney's play. THE DINING ROOM neither condemns nor condones the attitudes, lifestyle or privilege inherent in the upper middle class WASP culture. He merely presents it as is, leaving audiences to form their own opinions on the triumphs and tribulations of their lives. We can laugh at their foibles or empathize with their difficulties. In the end, the play gives us a glimpse into life on the other side, and informs us of our own identity as we react to what we see on the stage. It makes us think, and that is the essence of good theater.

THE DINING ROOM runs through March 22 at Stratford Academy in Stratford, CT. For tickets call 203-375-8778 or visit Square One Theatre Company,

Photo:

background: Priscilla Squiers, David Victor, Danielle Sultini, Bruce Murray

seated (front/center): Ryan Hendrickson, Josie Kulp


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