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Stanchions and red velvet ropes stand at the corners of Tom Donahue’s setting for A Cheever Evening at Source Theatre, discreetly protecting both the stage-filling Edward Hopper reproductions that dominate the back wall, and the representatives of an endangered species who are on display out front. The evening’s pillbox-hatted Muffies and buttoned-down Hoyts may be swilling scotch as if livers lasted forever, but those ropes are there to tell us that their Kennebunkportean preserve is desperately fragile. Brittle as dried flowers. Delicate as the museum-quality antiques that grace their mantels.
For if playwright A.R. Gurney is once again encouraging audiences to loiter in the living rooms of America’s most convention-bound, conventionally respectable minority groupthe White Anglo-Saxon Protestantsdirector (and
Washington City Paper opera critic) Joe Banno wants it clearly understood that these folks are dinosaurs; display-case worthy, perhaps, and as exquisitely preserved as money and breeding can make them, but antediluvian nonetheless.
Audiences would doubtless get the point without all the pointing. Still, the approach does allow the director to take a sort of anthropological view of the 14 John Cheever tales Gurney has used as his subject matter. When first published in the New Yorker, these elegantly crafted stories of aging, dyspeptic patricians and their variously conflicted offspring painted a wry, vaguely troubling portrait of postwar angst amongst the moneyed classes. For those who couldn’t readily identify with characters who sometimes seemed to value finishing-school manners above all, there were plenty of wittily erudite reflections on mortality, grace, adultery, children, and art.
In the years since Cheever’s death in 1982, the publication of his cringe-inducing diaries, with their chronicle of the author’s alcoholism, furtive homosexual encounters, and debilitating depressions, has cast his stories in a darker light. But Gurney returns them to a sort of sunny civility. Ever the boulevard playwright, he doesn’t so much weave Cheever’s plots together as allow them to overlap, so that characters pass each other at parties, or on the street, and the evening’s focus simply shifts to whomever appears most likely to say something amusing.
This is the same approach he took in The Dining Room, which played a post-Manhattan engagement with its original cast at the Kennedy Center in 1982 and was revived by Banno at Source Theatre four years later. It’s not really play-writing, it’s sketch-writing with snatches of interstitial detailing to tie it all together. The art often seems to be all in the transitions, though there can be bonuses in terms of mood. In 1982, just as I was about to give The Dining Room three whisks for wit and two smiles for ambience and have done with it, I heard the insistent ache behind the laughs. Virtually every punch line concerned the pain of distance, whether uttered by a petulant little boy resisting the hug that might comfort him, or an adulterous wife whose husband was off “in Amsterdam, or Rotterdam, or who-gives-a-damn.”
Not surprisingly, these intimations of upper-crusty distress seemed more revelatory near the dawn of the Reagan era than they do today. Gurney’s insider take on the Westchester set hasn’t changed in the ensuing 14 years, and I suppose that does say something about the insularity of the folks he’s hanging around with. But the whimpers of patricians who found in the 1950s and ’60s that they could no longer condescend to their servants just don’t resonate the way they did when we were all supposed to be envisioning that shining city on the hill.
Perhaps for that reason, Gurney begins A Cheever Evening with a frankly absurdist sketch about an apartment-dwelling couple who discover that their new radio picks up only the conversations going on in neighboring apartments (much to hubby’s annoyance and wifey’s fascination), before segueing into more down-to-earth situations. His selections from the Cheever canon are mostly about the marital strains a diminished lifestyle is imposing on those to the manor born. There’s a woman for whom an elegant bar of soap given by a servant as a wedding present has become a symbol of her own fallen financial state and a busy husband who can’t understand how a gift of sapphires could cause his wife to erupt into tears. Other stories tell of spouses convinced their better halves are intent on poisoning them, or worse, on leaving them for the bum on the corner. There are also tales of simple embarrassment (a college lad who can’t decide if he’s more mortified by the short skirt his mother wears when ice-skating or by his father’s rudeness to waiters) and lack of embarrassment (an unemployed businessman who’s rather proud of his newfound skill at robbing his neighbors’ houses).
Earth-shattering these stories aren’t, but sometimes, as played by a cast well drilled in nose-in-the-air delivery, they capture the frustrations of a social culture that insists on reining in all but the most ridiculous passions. Allyson Currin, for instance, keeps throwing herself into a variety of tizzies, none more elaborate than the kicking-on-the-floor tantrum with which one of her recently divorced characters meets a parental refusal to welcome her back to the nest.
Cam Magee has some effective moments as wide-eyed innocents and sharp-tongued crones, but is never better than when she goes minimalist, and plays a matter-of-fact septuagenarian with a Katharine Hepburnish tilt of the head. Bill Largess dithers nicely as a series of demurely tortured souls who suffer reverses, and Kevin Reese is persuasive as several disparate men who have trouble controlling either their libidos or their tempers. Reese is especially amusing as a hot-to-trot charity-solicitor who collects quite a contribution when he calls on one of Lisa Newman-Williams’ manipulative vamps. The two also play out a more delicately affecting romance as a loyal wife and her admirer-from-afar.
The husband who comes between them is played swaggeringly by Matthew Brady, who finds a succession of quite different ways to suggest that beneath the strong, forthright male exteriors lie quivering cores of indecision.
Costumer Margaret Weedon has supplied a whole era’s worth of crinoline cocktail dresses and double-breasted jackets, pinioning the Eisenhower years with a look that’s so carefully coiffed that when even a hair is out of place, it suggests deep trouble. Also a solid asset is Donahue’s setting, which morphs gracefully from Westchester to the Hamptons at intermission with burgundy upholstery and red velvet museum ropes giving way to rattan and dock cables.
Whether any of this theatrical
legerdemain makes the people inhabiting these frocks and habitats less tiresome will depend on a patron’s worldview. Gurney is far too genteel to actually mock his characters,
so patrons who would find them annoying at a country club or
restaurant will find them equally annoying at Source.CP