THEATER | It’s easier said than done to suspend contemporary attitudes for Theatre in the Round’s “Indian Blood,” set in (fortunately) bygone days

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Family memories are entwined with the holiday season. A.R. Gurney’s Indian Blood is the playwright’s autobiographical remembrance of his teenage rebellion during Christmas 1946 in Buffalo, New York in an upper-class WASP family. Director Lynn Musgrave, a 25-year veteran of Theatre in the Round, keeps the pace crisp. Doing double duty as sound designer, she perfectly evokes 1940s radio drama sound effects sound effects coupled with Big Band music.

Gurney’s alter-ego Eddie (Ben Stasny), a wise-cracking 16-year-old, gets suspended from his prep school for a prank, having been turned in by his envious, poor-relation cousin Lambert (Andrew Stephan). He’s bombarded by constant admonitions and rules from his dad, Harvey (Rob Frankel) while his mother Jane (Tina Frederickson) is an implacable counterweight of affectionate dry wit. The doyenne grandmother (Maggie Bearmon Pistner) is a imperious hypochondriac doling out small favors. Grandfather (Charles Torrey) is the surprisingly introspective banker, who one wishes had more stage time. Everyone converges at Christmas dinner with Uncle Paul (David Coral), a “confirmed bachelor” acting like an overgrown frat boy. (Coral doubles as the dour principal at the play’s beginning.) Colleen Barret juggles three supporting characters: a Betty Boop secretary, a neighbor, and the Irish maid Annie.

indian blood, playing through december 13 at theatre in the round. for tickets ($20) and information, see theatreintheround.org.

The actors are energetic, but they’re saddled with an awful script.

Why the title Indian Blood in the context of this wealthy white family? It’s the mantra-like “explanation” Eddie regularly repeats for his various shenanigans. He blames his “Seneca tribal ancestors” for every social infraction and says that his cousin’s “enemy tribe” blood accounts for their irritating brawls. In a young child this fantasy might have some charm, but not in a manipulative teenager whose  racial attitudes are echoed by his father’s uneasy comments about “Jews and Negroes.” Irish servants are fair game for automatic contempt, too.

In the program, Musgrave’s notes advise us to “suspend the modern filter known as ‘political correctness.'” That’s easier said than done. Even holiday lights’ gaudy sheen can’t conceal how relentless racism and class superiority suffuse this play. The playwright’s nostalgia for a “simpler past” comes down to two hours of a stratified society where everyone knows their place and stays in it. My emotional response was a growing queasiness I could barely contain enough to return from intermission. Ultimately, Musgrave’s warnings about “political correctness” only underscore the offensiveness of Gurney’s petty longing for a privileged past.

There is one character of depth: Grandfather has premonitions of what the prosperous city of Buffalo, bustling on the Erie Canal and railroads, with its symphony and Broadway previews will become 50 years later: a bypassed, hollowed-out industrial shell. There’s a beautiful elegiac feeling about Torrey’s performance, but his best moments come too late in the play to salvage it. He makes a revelation to Eddie that should be a “moment of truth” that matures Eddie—but, it’s too little too late. Indian Blood is the coal in the stocking of this year’s holiday theater.

This event 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 know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.