The mostly Wasp-centric, observational plays of 80 year-old A.R. Gurney are like New York pretzel vendors: if you don’t see one on the block, there will surely be a cart on the next street or around the corner. Children, loosely based on a John Cheever story, is the revival of a 1974 piece. There’s nothing dated about the psycho-dynamics of this dysfunctional family or faded in the portraiture of a class bottle-fed with sanctified rules wrapped in repression. The play snaps, crackles, and eventually booms.
It’s the July 4th weekend at a large, ancestral home on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Fully a participating character, the shingled, beachfront manse is a nucleus around which the family revolves. Adult siblings Barbara (Margaret Nichols) and Randy (Richard Thieriot) spent a lifetime of summers here. The divorced and rudderless Barbara, has brought her children. Randy, a private school teacher prone to frat boy tantrums, is accompanied by his former debutante wife, Jane (Lynn Wright), and their children. A third sibling, Pokey, who works for the Justice Department, has neither visited nor maintained a relationship with the family since their father drowned five years ago. Brooding and volatile, Pokey is the black sheep who always gets special treatment. The others resent him.
Mother (Darrie Lawrence)—she’s never named—the kind of righteous, straight-backed, uniformly dressed matron one might see in the society pages of The New York Times were it not considered déclassé, has announced she’s getting married. Barbara and Randy are shocked. It simply never occurred to them she has a life outside her matriarchal role.
The house will revert to the siblings, each of whom has his or her own agenda. Informed by letter, Pokey appears with his braless Jewish wife and blue-jeaned children, lighting a fuse that provokes long-ready combustion. We effectively never see anything of him but an arm. It’s a helluva weekend. Truths are exposed, lives irrevocably changed.
Margaret Nichols (Barbara) gives a precision performance embodying oppressive insecurity and naiveté. Her character’s emotional state regulates Nichol’s every word and restrained gesture.
Richard Thieriot’s Randy vacillates between rigid, class-conscious judgment and spoiled-child outbursts. Thieriot’s rages are so excessive—in physicality and high pitched volume—they seem to belong in another play. I found the actor eminently credible in his less histrionic scenes, especially one poignant exchange with his wife before the dance.
Lynn Wright (Jane) is an expert at naturalism. She seems to literally be Jane, as if she was cast because of her upper class roots. Even the way she moves a long skirt aside with grace and efficiency, appears a gesture born of habit. Wright’s focused stage presence and thoughtful responses are always engaging. She rises above a less than central role.
Darrie Lawrence (Mother) portrays steely subjugation so well in the first part of the story, her character seems like a cliché. Lawrence’s slow, subtly conveyed build, is successfully designed to make mother’s eventual emancipation decree worthy of cheering.
A.R. Gurney’s characters are defined in forensic detail. Dialogue snaps even when it’s delivered in an understated manner. Relationships are compelling. You may not like these people, but you’ll recognize and believe them.
The original ending to Children was revised by the playwright in 1979 “to be more humane.” It is. It’s also, in my opinion, less vigorous and raw.
Director Scott Alan Evens clearly understands the patrician world this play inhabits. He has a feel for regulating the energy of language not only during verbal pyrotechnics, but also when unflappability is paramount to the characters. Inner lives are glimpsed.
Brett J. Banakis’ Scenic Design is intrinsically appropriate, down to the geraniums, wooden American flag, and classic red stars decorating the house. Haley Lieberman’s Costume Design is pitch perfect, the Town and Country ethos they indicate are obvious and proper.
Photos by Stephen Kunken from top:
1. L to R: Darrie Lawrence, Lynn Wright, Margaret Nichols, Richard Thieriot
2. Richard Thieriot and Lynn Wright
3. Darrie Lawrence (The other is just the back of an actor we never see)
TACT/The Actor’s Company Theater presents
Children by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Scott Alan Evens
The Beckett Theater
410 West 42d Street
Through November 20, 2011