With its fifty-plus characters and eighteen unrelated, time-shifting scenes (too brief ever to bore), A. R. Gurney's 1982 breakthrough play, The Dining Room, can be a treat for the half-dozen actors involved and - if handled right - for the audience as well. No wonder it has proved a perdurable hit on the regional circuit. But it's not exactly cutting-edge material - even less so, now that we are deep into the twilight of the WASP culture that Gurney so lovingly chronicled a quarter-century ago. The customs that he captured were already borderline quaint now they seem outright antiquated.
Still, Gurney's observations were accurate and insightful enough to have stood the test of time (and you can bet that there still exist WASP sleeper cells where the proper prandial protocols are faithfully observed). In the play's first major New York revival since the Playwrights Horizons original (which featured William H. Macy and John Shea), Keen Company - whose mission statement makes a unabashed case for sincere plays - proves a perfect match.
The trick to finessing The Dining Room is balancing the pathos (lovely young Samantha Soule , for instance, playing a doddering dowager who has lost every last trace of identity but for her manners) and the humor (e.g., Claire Lautier as a rebellious teen raiding the liquor cabinet while railing against her fossilized forebears). Either trajectory - goopy or goofy - can be overdone. However, director Jonathan Silverstein seems to have steered the actors simply toward ... sincerity.
The biggest pitfall observable out in the boonies is the temptation to play The Dining Room for easy laughs. Gurney's text -although not especially subtle itself - responds well to subtlety. The humor is like a skittish debutante, best approached delicately and never - heaven forfend - with a wink.
Dan Daily , who has an all but immobile face (tiny implacable mouth, W.C. Fields cheeks) is a whiz at registering minute changes in mood - the WASP male not being known for emotional lability. His turn as a young master facing abandonment by the maid with whom he imagined a bond is revelatory: What should expect to see emerging from households so lacking in familial warmth, if not autocratic automatons who go on to rule - and ruin - the world? Daily, later playing older, fully convinces as one of the latter.
Ann McDonough, who was in the original production (which ran 18 months), does a fine job with her various embodiments, despite being assigned some of the weaker segments - for instance, the role of a woman who calls in a handyman to bolster up the table, only to discover that it's not an antique, and not especially valuable. The metaphor is heavy-handed - Gurney's way of making sure we realize that the table's grandeur and provenance really aren't the point.
Where we dine - be it beside a primordial campfire or huddled in front of a TV - is the great crucible of civilization: it's where we learn what our culture expects of us. The celebrants around Gurney's table learn a little something about noblesse oblige, class divisions, and even infidelity-lessons many of us would just as soon do without. But they also learn about consideration (all those younger relations, trying not to embarrass Soule's Alzheimer's-addled mater familias!) and continuity.
The table itself is a gimmick - but a very effective one. And in the intimate space where Keen Company has resurrected this worthwhile chamber piece, we get to partake of a nourishing ritual.