“…And that while we are not a distinguished family, we enjoy the illusion, when we are together, that the Pommeroys are unique.”
That A.R. Gurney’s 1974 play Children returns to New York this month in a time of great social problems is curious. In the play, we’re given glimpses of a family whose function is dependent on the least reaching of issues: attendance at a costume party, tennis scores, and proper occasions to drink. In 2011, when real families are struggling to hold onto their homes for reasons bigger and uglier than a matrimonial dispute, does a play like this one hold any water at all?
Rare is the article that mentions A.R. Gurney without some permutation of the phrase “preeminent chronicler of the American WASP,” but his enduring ability to “[make] audiences feel bad for rich men who play golf, and women named Binky,” as stated once by the New York Times‘ Jason Zinoman, ensured a career that has spanned four decades. Gurney has distinguished himself for his ability to bring the affectations of that sect down to earth; his characters find themselves at odds with a world that is changing in ways that can’t be re-strung or re-soled.
Children is suggested by John Cheever’s 1951 short story “Goodbye, My Brother.” The vitals are essentially the same – the black-sheep son returns home for a holiday weekend – but Gurney’s consolidation refocuses the story to make him a catalyst rather than a total downer who threatens the family’s good spirits. The family is obsessed with games and scores, none being more important than the game of familial preservation.
The only titular children that appear onstage are Barbara, a rattling cage of a woman who dislikes her own children, and Randy, the most game-obsessed of the clan, who has brought his very repressed wife and their children along. The adult children (and is there ever a need for differentiation) are greeted with the news that they will soon inherit the family’s ancestral home from its matriarch. From there, it’s all erosion as alliances shift, secrets are revealed, and decisions are made, remade, and abandoned. Somehow, none of them have grown up.
These characters can go one of two ways – in less capable hands, they can be disturbingly out-of-touch, overly coddled, and downright insensitive presences. In this production, however, they are played with a refreshing self-awareness by Darrie Lawrence, Margaret Nichols, Lynn Wright, and Richard Thieriot, which makes this production more palatable.
The four-person cast work well off one another. The company hit their “warmed-up” points at different times, but are shortly off and running. The actors here are well-cast, intelligent performers, all were functioning within the same play, with an understanding of their individual places within it. This is often problematic in small-cast productions, where discrepancies in energy, motivation, relationship, et cetera are easier to spot. Here, our foursome are aware of – without playing slavishly to – the obvious stereotypes.
Thieriot in particular – his jumpy performance, while broad, shaped Randy into a doltish man-child. The women keep this production grounded when it needs it the most, particularly Darrie Lawrence, whose Mother is one part stubbornness, one part familial seamstress. Ms. Wright conjures a wonderfully wound Connecticut-type housewife, and Ms. Nichols’ boozy, neurotic Jackie Kennedy doppelgänger Barbara shows the wear around the edges – with that nasally New England timbre that’s all muthahhs and lectooors.
The production moves along at a nice clip – director Scott Alan Evans carves a clear arc that rarely lags past the first exposition-heavy third of the play. Any longer with this already-tiresome family would have been exhausting. Much ado has been made of the conceit of the offstage brother. A shadowed appearance in the final minutes of the play is an unsatisfying tease, so better still might have been the decision to keep him offstage entirely. He is described as a stubborn, unyielding force – a rock in the way of a river current – and without the opportunity to speak for himself, I wondered if he was really all that bad to begin with.
The one-two punch of Brett J. Banakis’ sets and Haley Lieberman’s costumes conjure a space that is so manicured, so painfully perfect that it’s no wonder how these characters end up so hyperaware of their flaws. One can imagine the family alighting on the terrace, careful to keep their feet and glasses from mussing the artfully arranged books – which, by the way, they never read. Ms. Lieberman’s costumes look as fresh as they might have tooked in the 1970s, though I wondered if they were properly period, or if preppy fashion changes less than we thought. The overall effect is one of a photo shoot set in waiting, and it is a well-designed canvas for things to fall apart against.
Children, as a text, doesn’t do the job as well as some of the playwright’s similar upper-crust chronicles. It tends to take the easy way out, with lines explaining the WASP acronym and pointedly lamenting the protagonists’ childlike state. Children is occasionally clippy and snippy, and this production is wise to give us glimpses into moments that this family would never allow in public. Despite differing opinions about its place in the American canon, Children may just plumb deep enough for an audience to feel that yes, I think Mr. Gurney somehow knows my family too.