In 1974, A.R.Gurney’s Children was produced by Lynne Meadow at the Manhattan Theatre Club. It was Gurney’s first full length play and it arrived on our shores following a successful London run at the Mermaid Theatre which starred Constance Cummings. Here, its four person cast included Nancy Marchand, Swoozie Kurtz, Holland Taylor and Dennis Howard; under the direction of Melvin Bernhardt, it established Gurney as a fine writer, usually called “promising” after a first success.
He certainly fulfilled the promise, as he followed Children with twenty-odd others, most of them dealing with the special circumstances in the lives of his fellow White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPS). He’s created memorable characters from other social strata, religions, regions, even nations, but at the center you will always find a member of his tribe, or an entire family of them.
So it was with Children, set in 1970 on the terrace of a large summer house overlooking the sea, on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. It covers just one long Saturday of the July 4th weekend, and it is peopled by Mother, her son Randy, her daughter Barbara, and Randy’s wife, Jane. Off stage characters, equally vividly drawn, include Mother’s grandchildren, a male friend of hers and her youngest child, a son called Pokey.
It was particularly interesting to see this finely wrought revival in the same month as Nicky Silver’s The Lyons, the musical It Shoulda Been You starring Tyne Daley and Harriet Harris, Woody Allen’s Honeymoon Motel, Elaine May’s George Is Dead and Ethan Coen’s Talking Cure (these last three comprising the whole of Relatively Speaking). It was interesting because all five of these plays center around the silver umbilical cord that can nourish or strangle.
Gurney’s people, repressed WASPS by his own definition, are perfectly able to convey great joy and great pain just as movingly and hilariously as are the more flamboyant Jewish, Catholic and other colorful ethnics, only they convey them with more decorum, with more restraint.
The early American settlers, the progeny of whom Gurney is constantly probing, were living in the 1970s in a country which was pretty much “theirs”. The family life revealed in the movies of the previous 40 years was the life which the likes of the Hardy family lived, the white bread, picket fenced, well spoken folks who gave us an image that we accepted as the norm, and certainly as the one to model our own lives after. That’s why ethnic names like Gumm, Schwartz, Zanville, LeSeur, Brugh, Garfinkle, Leach and others had to become Garland, Curtis, Clark, Crawford, Taylor, Garfield and Grant to be acceptable handles for the actors in those families.
Gurney writes of people like the Hardy Family, with a Mom, Pop, and various numbers of kids, but he pokes and probes with a gentle but firm pen and brings this tribe to vivid life again and again. He certainly does so in this, his early attempt at capturing the joys and heartaches that spring from such seemingly ordinary human beings.
In Mother (that’s what he calls her; he gives her no name) he’s created a woman at a crossroads, one who has gathered her clan to tell them of her plans for her own, and their futures. Complications arise, and direction is changed as past secrets are unearthed and truths are finally faced. A long one act, 90 minutes without interruption, covering most of a hot July Saturday, gives the playwright time to put old habits under the microscope and come to grips with wrong choices, bad patterns and a lie or two. It all makes for absorbing theatrical exposure to a family unique as any other, and familiar as any other as well.
It offers good actors juicy roles into which to bite. The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) is the producer here, and company members Darrie Lawrence, Margaret Nichols and Lynn Wright plus guest artist Richard Thieriot bring such lovely work to this ensemble piece that they continue the fine work I’ve enjoyed before in other TACT offerings like The Late Christopher Bean, Three Men on a Horse and The Cocktail Party.
How this company manages to maintain such high acting standards in New York with all its competition and its budgeting problems is something of a miracle. Scott Alan Evans, the artistic director of TACT, directed here, and he’s managed his ensemble beautifully. It’s like having the Moscow Art Theatre in Manhattan without benefit of government support.
An amusing sidelight is that Mr. Gurney once had several discussions with Katherine Hepburn about appearing in this play. She insisted on several changes, including a different ending, one in which she would be “alone on stage for a very long time.” When Gurney finally refused the changes, she said; “Mr. Gurney, you have written an ensemble play. I happen to be a star.” And they parted amiably.
In March, TACT will bring us another kind of family in Neil Simon’s Lost In Yonkers, and how fortunate are both Mr. Gurney and Mr. Simon that they have this opportunity to see new actors bringing life to the characters they created, in one case 40, in the other case 20 years ago.
For those of you who think of good theatre as a form of nourishment for body and soul, get to know the folks at TACT. Seats are relatively inexpensive, and they prove once again that talent combined with passion will always more than compensate for small budgets and low profile promotion.
Children runs thru Nov 20. 2011 at The Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, NYC.
Details and tickets
Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
Read more at RichardSeff.com
- Richard Seff on DCTS – interviews Broadway luminaries:
Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz: