Princeton Summer Theater Presents A.R. Gurney's WASP World In Tragi-Comic Ensemble Piece, "Scenes From American Life"
A grandmother ("Granny") sits between her two grandchildren in the back seat (represented by three chairs) of the Pierce Arrow. Edward, the chauffeur, is driving them to see the swans. It's Buffalo, New York in the 1930s. The children's parents are away in Bermuda. Granny discusses the prune whip that her cook is preparing them for lunch and the play starring Katharine Cornell that they will be going to see that afternoon. Granny warns the children about dirty fingernails, fingers in noses and disrespect for "darkies." As the children watch the beautiful swans, the grandmother tells the story of the swan princess who must never go on dry land, but must stay in the middle of the lake all her life "because that is where swans belong."
The more than 100 characters played by just eight actors in 34 different scenes spanning the middle decades of the twentieth century in A. R. Gurney's Scenes from American Life are, like those swans, a rarefied breed. Traditions loom large with these Eastern establishment WASPS. Change is the enemy, and adaptability does not register on their list of virtues.
Currently playing at Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus in Princeton Summer Theater's final offering of the 2004 season, Scenes from American Life depicts a world of exclusive old country clubs and cocktails parties, of prep schools and dancing schools, deferential servants, proper manners and powerful old-boy networks, along with both blatant and subtle hypocrisy, sexism, racism and anti-Semitism.
Scenes from American Life (1970), one of Mr. Gurney's earliest plays, uses somewhat untraditional means to provide its glimpses of this tradition-bound world. As the play jumps backwards and forwards in time from the 1930s to World War II, through the '50s, into the upheavals of the 1960s and beyond into an imagined apocalyptic decade of the '70s, there are recurrent themes and characters who reappear, but little in the way of coherent plot or character development. The versatile actors all play multiple roles in this story of many different families, and most sets and props in these shifting scenes are mimed rather than literally represented. In both form and content, Scenes resembles Mr. Gurney's breakthrough play and biggest hit, The Dining Room, which appeared twelve years later in 1982. (Mr. Gurney was busy raising a family and teaching English at M.I.T. in the intervening years.)
Both Scenes from American Life and The Dining Room provide exquisite examples of Mr. Gurney's superb ear for dialogue and his unparalleled understanding of the fascinating slice of American life that wielded so much power and influence in our society for so long. Scenes does, however, fall short of Mr. Gurney's more mature work in its loose structure. It lacks the focal point and the coherence that the dining room table, for example, seems to provide. Also, Mr. Gurney is on less solid ground here when he is speculating on and over-reacting to the threats of repression and social upheaval in the upcoming '70s than he is when depicting the decades he had just lived through: the '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s. Mr. Gurney's cultural observations prove far more accurate than his political prognostications, though the "futuristic" scenes in the play may provide occasional resonance for contemporary audiences, living with terrorist threats and an unpopular war.
Under the direction of Princeton University sophomore Marisol Rosa-Shapiro, the small, tightly knit Princeton Summer Theater ensemble displays impressive energy, versatility and talent, as it has displayed throughout this summer's four productions, in presenting a complex array of sophisticated dramatic material. Erica Schlegel on piano provides background and transitions and sets the scene with a rich panoply of popular, patriotic and religious tunes, as the eight performers take on the challenges of formidable character stretches, from children to grandparents, from servants to aristocrats, from 1930s to 1970s.
The action moves rapidly and smoothly from scene to scene, and the cast is consistently focused and adept in characterization and delivery. Jed Peterson as the patrician WASP presiding over family rituals at the dinner table and elsewhere, or warning his grandson not to stammer, or teaching his son to keep his promise, or letting down his façade for a rare moment in refusing to contribute to the Yale alumni fund is especially strong, clear, convincing and memorable; as is Nicole Kontolefa as the family matriarch passing on the WASP doctrine, or the leader of an ill-fated '60s "encounter" group, or the intoxicated aunt at the christening, or the hypocritical mother engaged in a serious mother-daughter talk about debutante parties and college over lunch at an exclusive New York City restaurant.
Mr. Peterson and Ms. Kontolefa are both masterful in capturing the mannerisms, the vocal inflections, and the detailed behaviors that vividly delineate these, and other, cleverly conceived characters. The other members of this hard working cast Jonathan Elliott, Theodore Hall, Anissa Naouai, Ms. Rosa-Shapiro, Christine Scarfuto, and Rob Walsh, a dynamic mix of students from Princeton University, College of New Jersey and Moscow Art Theatre School also prove highly proficient in taking on multiple roles and responsibilities.
David Bengali's simple lighting and set a table, chairs, a two-part wheeling staircase with an American flag painted on one side and a hedge row in the background admirably and efficiently serve the fluid action and tone of the play. Ms. Kontolefa's costumes khaki pants and white shirts for the four men, brown skirts and white blouses for the ladies, with accoutrements added as needed for particular characters in particular scenes maintain the simplicity in tone, and keep the focus on the actors' virtuosity and the audience's imagination.
This Gurney style works for the most part, and rewards audiences with many moments of amusement, nostalgia, and astute social commentary. I would offer just two suggestions to Ms. Rosa-Shapiro and company in bringing greater clarity to this sometimes confusing play and breathing life into this peculiar, almost extinct world: 1) Make sure all the dialogue, especially as the settings and characters change almost minute-by-minute, is loud and clear; and 2) despite the wonderfully successful minimalist approach, do provide your actors with a few more props and costume pieces and a bit more detailed practice with the miming to help them create the realities of these idiosyncratic characters and situations.
Though Scenes from American Life, focusing entirely on that tradition-bound WASP world of the past and its conflicts with the realities of changing times, presents a somewhat narrow view of American life, Mr. Gurney's 1970 play will resonate with many, depending on their ages, and bring back memories of parents and grandparents and rituals of a bygone era. "I grew up in a world riddled with rules and regulations, and most of what I write deals with challenges to these inhibitions," declared Mr. Gurney, who at age 73 had two successful new plays Mrs. Farnsworth, starring Sigourney Weaver and John Lithgow, and Big Bill, about the tennis great Bill Tilden running in New York this past spring. "I like to write about how that sense of tradition has been challenged. I write plays about how these two worlds clash and interact."
Scenes from American Life will play at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, August 12-14, and 2 p.m. on August 14-15. Call (609) 258-7062 or visit www.PrincetonSum merTheater.org for reservations and information.