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The Middle Ages

Theatre Breaking Through Barriers offers up a merely serviceable production of A.R. Gurney's 1977 play. logo
Terry Small and Marilee Talkington in The Middle Ages
(© Carol Rosegg)
In Theatre Breaking Through Barriers' merely serviceable production of A.R. Gurney's The Middle Ages, now at Theatre Row, the biggest problem isn't that actor George Ashiotis, as WASP patriarch Charles, doesn't make eye contact with the other players or the audience -- because he happens to be blind. It's that he's simply miscast in the part, lacking the necessary stature, authority, and, perhaps most importantly, speech patterns of this powerful man. Adding to the misfit, costume designer Chloe Chapin has him got up in outfits that would make a bona fide defender of the old guard blanch.

Yet, there are other good attributes on view in this revival of Gurney's 1977 play, which is often regarded as a warm-up for his far superior The Dining Room. For example, set designer Bert Scott perfectly captures the trophy room of a men's club, which remains unchanged throughout the decades, and there's a scene-stealing performance by Melanie Boland.

The work's plot is straightforward: Four characters evolve over time, reconvening at intervals from the mid-1940s to late 1970s. We first meet Charles' wayward son Barney (Terry Small) as an adult attending his father's memorial service. His brother's wife Eleanor (Marilee Talkington) is trying to dissuade him from speaking, lest he rattle the assembled mourners. Barney redeclares his lifelong passion for Eleanor -- and from there, we proceed to the flashbacks.

As the embittered adult Barney, Small shows promise --- think Paul Newman in The Young Philadelphians. But his Barney at 16 is way too juvenile; and his Barney in his prime, when his rebelliousness has finally paid off with a lucrative career in hippie porn, is just painfully stereotypical. While similarly depicting the various ages of womanhood, Talkington more than holds her own; she's equally believable as shy pre-debutante and as a disillusioned suburban housewife.

And then there is Boland as Eleanor's mother, Myra, a shameless social-climber. Gurney has Myra address her concerns and goals in monologues delivered to the audience -- and banal and venal as her preoccupations may be, you feel for her. Indeed, men may rule the WASP world, but it's the rituals instituted by the women that keep its social gears grinding. It's a treat to have this insight into a seemingly superficial woman whose agenda cuts across class lines: She just wants to create a stable, rewarding life for her child.

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