Food for Thought

CURTAIN CALL:

The Dining Room

By A.R. Gurney

Directed by Fouad Onbargi

At the Loeb Ex through this weekend

THE SHINING mahogany dining table at centerstage during A.R. Gurney's The Dining Room is not merely a piece of furniture to be admired, loathed, typed upon, repaired, eaten upon. It's an emblem of that vanishing privileged breed indigenous to the Northeast that is the focus of Gurney's work: the WASP.

The two-act play consists of a series of overlapping vignettes, each of which takes place in a different dining room with a new set of WASP inhabitants. In smooth succession, Gurney presents all sorts of table settings: a kindergarten birthday bash complete with ice cream, a tense mother-daughter talk, and a pitch to granddad for prep school tuition money made by a politic young man, to name a few.

Although we've heard many of Gurney's points and punchlines before--some in John Cheever stories, others on Father Knows Best--the pace of the vignettes and the flashes of insight served up from time to time make The Dining Room touching, as well as entertaining, fare.

The Dining Room's versatile and polished cast of four women and four men take on a total of more than 50 characters. Each actor covers his share of WASP territory--each one seems to play a cute, babbling brat at least once, and there are enough overbearing octogenarians and strait-laced domestics to give everyone a chance to age. Director Onbargi and his cast never allow the quick switches to render the evening's entertainment a mere collection of acting exercises. Aside from its location in the Ex, there's nothing experimental about this Dining Room.

The clear strength of the production is its excellent ensemble acting, and a few scenes are especially energized by individual performances. At the play's start, Pier Carlo Talenti creates a despicable, but hardly cartoonish, disciplinarian dad. And in the more leisurely paced second act, Eric Oleson is stirring as a father far out of touch with his daughter's "very complicated" generation.

The liveliest, most farcical point of the show comes when Andrew Watson and Caroline Bicks play Standish and Emily, a husband and wife who make a magnificent mountain out of a molehill. In a hilarious huff, Standish swears retribution for his brother's tarnished reputation--"Binky Byers made a remark to him in the steam bath."

Holly Cate is impressive in the role of manipulative mother, warning her less-confident daughter (Rebecca Clark) against missing the first meeting of the Junior Assemblies. "Once you miss," she coldly scolds, "you never catch up." Cate also manages well in one of the play's few non-WASP roles. As a teenaged friend of Sarah (Caroline Bicks), she proclaims the dining room "wicked nice." So it is.