Samantha Soule, Claire Lautier, and Dan Daily
in The Dining Room
(© Theresa Squire)
Samantha Soule, Claire Lautier, and Dan Daily
in The Dining Room
(© Theresa Squire)
Twenty five years ago A.R. Gurney became a made man in the theater with Playwrights Horizons' production of his Pulitzer-Prize nominated play The Dining Room, which ran an astounding year-and-a-half on the strength of its brittle brilliance (and glowing review in The New York Times). The award-winning Keen Company is now celebrating Gurney's masterpiece with the work's first major New York revival, and they do both the playwright and his play proud.

The Dining Room, which takes place in a kaleidoscopic series of scenes over the better part of the 20th Century in the quietly elegant dining rooms of America's WASPish upper class, is a work that not only stands the test of time, but sets the bar for timeless theatrical elegance. During the course of two hours, a stellar ensemble cast of six accomplished actors (including Ann McDonough, who starred in the original production) transform themselves in scene after scene into a dizzying array of deft characterizations that range from children to elderly grandparents.

Those audience members who are unfamiliar with the play will try to find links between the characters in the hope of discovering a familial through-line. Give it up. The lynchpin that holds this play together isn't the stream of characters, who reveal their humanity in scenes both dramatic and comic, it's the table and chairs. They are the only constant, and their presence is always keenly felt.

A deft piece of theatrical literature that is as solidly constructed as the dining room table at its center, the play provides us with everything but the kitchen sink in the variety of emotional moments. The centerpiece is a comically heartbreaking piece in which a daughter comes home to tell her father that her marriage has broken up. As she pleads with her old world dad to let her and her three children move back home, her father's exhortations to give the marriage another try -- despite an increasingly hilarious list of obstacles -- becomes a sort of classic WASP vaudeville.

One of Gurney's gifts as a playwright is his relative lack of sentimentality. He doesn't so much lament the end of an era when families used to spend time together in their dining rooms as he chronicles this passing with acute observations. With simple honesty and wry humor, Gurney explores the ways in which the upper crust used the room like a bastion, while their children felt stifled by its formality.

Directed with fluid grace by Jonathan Silverstein, the actors command the stately set created by Dana Moran Williams with crisp precision. Just when you begin to think one actor is beginning to stand out with particular excellence, another steps up to match him or her.

Indeed, all six of the actors -- McDonough, Timothy McCracken, Dan Daily, Claire Lautier, Samantha Soule, and Mark J. Sullivan -- distinguish themselves as necessary pieces in this tapestry of American life.