Saturday, December 03, 2011


Theater In The Round is not having a good season.

Last evening, my middle brother and Joshua and I stayed downtown after work and attended a performance of Theater In The Round’s current production of A. R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room”. It may have been the weakest presentation I have ever encountered at Theater In The Round.

“The Dining Room” is more series of vignettes than fully-formed play. The script presents several different families from several different time periods (the early 20th Century through the late 1970s) in several different scenarios experiencing several different family problems, all set in the same dining room. The author’s theme has often been interpreted as depicting the decline of WASP America and the corresponding deterioration of the American upper-middle-class, but I am not so certain that such was the author’s intent.

“The Dining Room” was written in 1980, just as The Reagan Revolution was gathering steam, and premiered on January 31, 1981, ten days after President Reagan’s inauguration. Under such circumstances, for theorists to attribute to “The Dining Room” an examination of the decline of WASP America and the deterioration of the upper-middle-class is a case of grievous mistiming of circumstance at best or boneheaded misreading of history at worst.

In all likelihood, Gurney, in “The Dining Room”, was writing about his own family, as has always been Gurney's practice in his plays (as the playwright has admitted on multiple occasions). Gurney no doubt took as his starting point various family dramas he personally witnessed or heard about, and used his imagination to proceed from there.

Many of the vignettes are funny, but more than a few leave a sour aftertaste. I suspect that Gurney, in his private life, was caught between loving his family members and loathing them.

The play calls for six actors to play fifty-some roles ranging in age from small children to elders in their dotage. The vignettes are played without pause, and on occasion overlap. What with all the role-switching, “The Dining Room” is not an easy play for actors—and this is especially so since the scenes are too short for any of the characters to emerge as anything other than archetypes. Actors, I believe, must find the play as much frustrating and pointless as challenging to their craft.

The play is frustrating for audiences, too, because there is no depth underlying its rapid-moving surface. The charm of the play quickly pales as the vignettes go on and on (and I believe that at least one of the vignettes was cut from the Theater In The Round production). Sitting through two-and-a-quarter hours of thin vignettes is akin to dining on course after course of puff pastry.

For “The Dining Room” to succeed, the play must be expertly cast and expertly directed. The play must also move with great swiftness, because audiences cannot be allowed an opportunity to analyze the play as it unfolds or else the play fails miserably.

The cast in the Theater In The Round production was not good. None of the actors was up to the many demands called for by the playwright.

The director of the Theater In The Round production did not know how to shape the material or bring it to life. There was silent thud after silent thud as each vignette ended. Some scenes were ponderous, others were too cute by half, most simply fell flat.

In short, everyone associated with this production seemed to be wrong for the project. I had seen productions of “The Dining Room” before last night, but until last night I had never seen a production in which literally nothing worked.

This was the third consecutive Theater In The Round production we found acutely disappointing. Earlier this season, we sat through Theater In The Round’s “Bus Stop” and “The Reluctant Debutante”, productions that were not necessarily embarrassing but productions that had little to recommend them. “The Dining Room” production, in contrast, was very much an embarrassment. Something has gone wrong with the company—Theater In The Round is the oldest repertory theater company in the Twin Cities, preceding The Guthrie by well over a decade, and has a long and distinguished history and tradition—and something must be done to right the ship.

Before the performance, we ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant downtown.

We started with fresh corn chowder with roasted Poblano peppers and queso fresco, and continued with tomato salad with watermelon, queso fresco and red chili vinaigrette.

We ordered (and shared) three different plates of seafood: crab empanadas with salsa verde and avocado; red snapper ceviche with avocado, radish and orange; and sugarcane-skewered tequila shrimp with lemon-ginger mojo.

We finished with grilled chicken quesadilla with roasted corn and Poblano peppers.

Our food was pleasing, but we shall never return to the restaurant. The servers were aggressive liquor-pushers, and would not take “no” for an answer.

After we declined to order cocktails upon sitting down, our waiter informed us that he would bring us tequila cocktails anyway, but that he would remove them from our bill if we found them displeasing.

“If we want cocktails, we will be sure to let you know” was my brother’s response.

The waiter nevertheless promptly brought us cocktails. As the waiter placed them on our table, my brother told him, very quietly, “You can remove these, or I can remove them. If I remove them, you will need to call a busboy to clean up the mess on the floor.”

The waiter lowered his eyes, and said, in a very smarmy tone, “Teetotalers, are we?”

My brother looked him right in the eye, and responded, “Minimum-wage employee, are we?”

My brother’s response froze the waiter in his tracks, which had been my brother’s intent. After more than thirty seconds of total silence, my brother motioned at the cocktails and, without again looking at the waiter, said, “Remove these. And send a different server to our table.”

The waiter complied—and, five minutes later, we were greeted by a different waiter.

The second waiter started out just as smarmy as the first. In a high-pitched, singsong voice, drawing out his syllables to interminable lengths, he said, “OK. I understand NO COCKTAILS here. No cocktails AT ALL. OK. We can work with that.”

My brother looked the new waiter in the eye, and asked, very pointedly, “Do you always talk like this?”

My brother’s question froze the second waiter, too. My brother allowed the waiter to stew in his discomfort for thirty seconds, and then my brother, without again looking at the waiter, said, “Give us five minutes, and we’ll be ready to order.”

When the waiter returned to our table, precisely five minutes later, he did not say a word. He stood, in silence, and waited for my brother’s instructions.

My brother placed our order, telling the waiter what we wanted, in what sequence we wanted the courses, how many minutes we preferred between the various courses, and what—if any—beverages we wanted with each course.

The waiter said nothing, but he nodded—and the waiter followed my brother’s instructions to the letter. The waiter served us, faultlessly, for the rest of our meal—and he never said another word.

When we were done with our dinner, we demonstrated noblesse oblige, and tipped the waiter 50 per cent of the bill.

This morning we will all go to the local nursery/greenhouse and pick out our Christmas tree. In my family, my mother has the privilege of selecting the tree.

At the nursery/greenhouse, we will meet up with my older brother and his family, because they, too, will be selecting their Christmas tree.

Once the trees have been selected, we will take my parents’ tree home and place the base in water, after which we will all go over to my older brother’s house and spend the day.

We shall help my older brother and his family trim the tree and hang evergreens (they will return the favor at my parents’ house tomorrow). My mother and my sister-in-law plan to bake a few Christmas cookies, simply to add to the kids’ excitement about the Christmas season getting underway. A dinner of prime rib is planned.

Dinner will be over by 6:30 p.m., because Josh and I plan to attend tonight’s Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert, which starts at 8:00 p.m.

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