Pamela Payton-Wright and Charles Socarides
in Indian Blood
(© James Leynse)
Pamela Payton-Wright and Charles Socarides
in Indian Blood
(© James Leynse)
Indian Blood marks a homecoming for A.R. Gurney, and not simply because it's set in Buffalo, where the playwright was born. Gurney established his reputation by penning witty, gently sardonic comedies about White Anglo-Saxon Protestants such as Scenes from an American Life, The Dining Room, and The Cocktail Hour. But more recently, he's ventured into more sharply political fare such as O Jerusalem and Mrs. Farnsworth. This new play is more in line with his earlier work. An enchanting memory play with a terrific ensemble cast, Indian Blood is an affectionately satirical portrait of a bygone era that is richer and more complex than it initially appears.

The play takes place in the mid-1940s. 16-year-old Eddie (Charles Socarides) blames his tendencies towards bad behavior on his "Indian blood," as he's been told there's a Seneca Indian somewhere in his family tree. It stirs him to do things like draw obscene pictures in his Latin class -- an activity that gets him suspended from school thanks to his cousin Lambert (Jeremy Blackman) who rats him out. Lambert, too, has Indian blood, but while Eddie boasts of his, Lambert feels ashamed by such a connection. This supposed genetic foundation for delinquency is skewered several times in the play, as Eddie's obsession with his Indian blood is treated in a wry, comic manner.

Gurney also takes the opportunity to examine attitudes towards race and ethnicity that shore up the relative affluence of Eddie's family. According to his paternal grandfather (John McMartin), these attitudes may also be the cause of the decline of their city; the WASPs in power don't reach out their hands to encourage or support the new populations arriving in Buffalo, including the Irish and most recently the "Negro." In addition, Eddie's father Harvey (Jack Gilpin) even expresses concern that his son may be getting romantically involved with a "Jewess" -- which prompts a hilarious exchange between him and wife June (Rebecca Luker) about whether or not that's an acceptable term to use these days.

Although Gurney clearly exposes various flaws in his main characters, they all remain likable, thanks in part to the fully realized performances of the cast. Socarides is absolutely charming as Eddie, who frequently breaks the fourth wall to comment on the action to the audience. As his grandfather, McMartin practically steals the show in the few scenes in which he appears. His commanding presence combines with a sly, mischievous attitude and impeccable comic timing. Luker endows June with a vibrant inner life that seeps out through sarcastic comments aimed most often at her husband and his mother. An accomplished musical theater actress, Luker even gets to deliver a poignant rendition of Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To."

Pamela Payton-Wright is compelling as Eddie's grandmother, a controlling matriarch who keeps both servants and family members under her thumb. Blackman strikes just the right haughty attitude as Lambert to make it easy for the audience to sympathize with Eddie's point-of-view when it comes to the feuding cousins; yet, the underlying fear and desperate need for approval that motivates his actions are also in evidence. Rounding out this fine ensemble are Katherine McGrath and Matthew Arkin, both of whom play multiple characters.

John Arnone's set is fairly simple, utilizing only a few chairs and some projections (by Leah Gelpe); this is in keeping with Gurney's script, in which Eddie often invokes the power of imagination in the theater to explain why there's not more furniture and special effects. Howell Binkley's lighting helps, as well, spotlighting the places where you're supposed to see a Christmas tree, a table, etc. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes nicely invoke the period without seeming ridiculously out of date. Unfortunately, some technical glitches marred John Gromada's sound design at the performance I attended.

Aside from that problem, which should be easily fixed, director Mark Lamos has done a commendable job with this world premiere. The action flows effortlessly, and he and his cast bring Gurney's words to vibrant theatrical life.