Now 83 and still cranking out plays with surprising regularity, A. R. Gurney remains one of our most reliable playwrights. His latest, Family Furniture, features (not surprisingly) WASPy characters and takes place not far from Buffalo, N.Y., his hometown and the locale of many of his plays. Sweet, observant and deftly constructed, with a few twists along the way, the play traces a transitional time in America and a transitional time in one well-to-do family.
Russell (Peter Scolari) and Claire (Carolyn McCormick) are upstanding members of the Buffalo upper class in the early 1950s. The play takes place at their summer home on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie, not far from Buffalo. Their son Nick (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) will head to Williams in the fall and is painting houses to save money for a car. His sister Peggy (Ismenia Mendes) attends Vassar and is dating an Italian from Buffalo named Marco. Russell and Claire aren’t sure he’s the best match for Peggy, so Russell decides to send her (rather ironically) on a student trip to Italy, to expose her to new people. Nick is dating a smart Jewish girl, Betsy (Molly Nordin). Russell’s main objection with Betsy is that she’s judgmental.
The main plotline involves Claire having an affair with Howard Baldwin, a tennis doubles partner and a member of their social circle. When Nick finds out, he acts coldly toward his mother and behaves rudely toward Howard during a tennis match. Betsy suggests staging a scene from Hamlet to show Claire in a “tactful and sophisticated” way that she and Nick know about her affair.
Gurney paints a detailed and affectionate portrait of 1950s America, or at least the upper class, northeast, WASP version of the 1950s. Country clubs, tennis, sailing, gin and tonics, summer homes, good jobs, good Canadian beer—what’s not to like? Times are changing, though. Russell still sails a wooden sailboat, while his friends are buying fiberglass boats. They read books and listen to records like “Come On-a My House,” but TV is gaining a foothold. Soon the WASP elite won’t have a lock on the top schools or the top jobs.
Occasionally Gurney spells out his themes too bluntly, as when Russell says, “The world is changing radically.” For most of the play, however, Gurney makes his points more subtly. And the coming-of-age theme and changing parent-child dynamic is certainly universal.
Director Thomas Kail seems to understand the period and the characters well. He doesn’t make the family too genteel or self-important. They’re privileged, and they know they are, but don’t put on airs. Scolari is particularly good, giving one of his best stage performances to date. McCormick is fine throughout and is at her best in her poignant scene with Nick near the end of the play. The three young actors do excellent work, too. Keenan-Bolger makes Nick both smart and at times immature. The less experienced Mendes and Nordin are also solid under Kail’s sensitive direction. Rachel Hauck’s set is minimal but quite functional. It works especially well at the end, when it’s time to close up the summerhouse.
One quibble: It takes a while to figure out where the action is taking place because the skimpy program doesn’t mention that the location is the family’s summer home in Ontario. For much of the play I wrongly assumed they were at a year-round house in suburban Buffalo. One has to log onto the Flea’s website to find information about the setting, the period and the cast bios. I’m all for saving paper, but the theater should include basic information about the play in the program if possible.
Otherwise the Flea has once again given Gurney a first-rate production. And Gurney shows no sign of letting up his impressive pace or the quality of his work. He’s been writing plays for more than 50 years, and he’s produced some of his best – Black Tie, Indian Blood and now Family Furniture – over the last several years. Like some of his industrious characters, he exemplifies the Protestant work ethic.