THEATER | “The Dining Room” at Theatre in the Round puts too much on its plate


Theatre in the Round bills its production of A. R. Gurney’s The Dining Room as “a charming mosaic of scenes.” It is no such thing. Far from charming, the listless script is slightly preferable to watching paint dry. The stringing together of more than a dozen domestic situations doesn’t qualify as scenes or even as vignettes. Instead of each having a beginning, middle, and end, they are thoughts that never get completed. On top of which, this homage to elitism labors on one tedious dilemma after another of how difficult it is for the filthy rich to get along in life, faced with the burden of how to best spend their money.

While there’s no denying that wealthy people have personal problems, this superficial study doesn’t present any worth caring about. A succession of shallow characters populate inert scenarios devoid of humanity and of any immediacy whatsoever. Among a slew of premises is an overbearing father manipulating his grade-school son like you would a marionette, a cheating wife and her lover at a kid’s birthday party, and an old maid who’s done waiting on a high society household and wants to simply live out her remaining years, but must ward off the entreaties of a selfish employer desperate to keep her in service. None of these interactions are so much as minimally developed to make something actually happen. 

There is a bright spot. In the six-actor cast that includes John Adler, Tina Frederickson, Ann Carroll, Ken Chester, MaryLynn Mennicke, and Nate Stanger and handle almost 60 roles. Adler gives a fine performance—remarkably versatile, creating a distinct presence every time he switches character. The others, while not as skilled, are serviceable.

Director Lynn Musgrave, who doesn’t invest the production with a great deal of vitality, writes in the notes, “An elegy for a vanishing way of life, a memorial to [Gurney’s] WASP upbringing and a universal portrait of American families, The Dining Room is as relevant today as ever–particularly for the privileged and those who serve them. And for that reason, instead of using 1981 [when the play premiered] as the time period for the “current” scenes, I’ve carried the show forward to this decade: from the Depression to the Recession of today.”

In a steadily worsening economic climate that increasingly finds hard-working families losing their homes left and right, one has to wonder exactly what is universal about a play in which people concern themselves with such troubles as how to correctly use fingerbowls and whether a whining, spineless young man gets to go the private college of his choice. Indeed, what renders the play wholly irrelevant is its lack of universality, its failure to depict any truths of how haves can suffer through and prevail against human hardship just as meaningfully as have-nots.

This production is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you’ll know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

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