There's a scene in A.R. Gurney's "The Dining Room" in which a college student photographs his Great Aunt Harriet in her dining room as she explains the use of such arcane items as finger bowls.
"We're studying the eating habits of various vanishing cultures," he tells her, adding that his area of interest is "the WASPs of Northeastern United States."
That area of interest is also the subject of Gurney's 1981 play, which is receiving a sometimes touching, sometimes funny, always entertaining production at Towson University's Maryland Arts Festival.
The ways of the WASP are meat and potatoes to Gurney, and "The Dining Room" has another typical Gurney feature as well -- it's built around a gimmick. In this case, all of the scenes take place in a formal dining room. The room represents about a dozen different dining rooms in the course of the play, and through it passes a cast of six versatile actors, who portray an array of characters of various ages and stations.
Director C. Richard Gillespie keeps the action moving fluidly, with the actors in one scene frequently entering just as, if not before, their predecessors leave.
He has chosen his cast well. As Great Aunt Harriet, prim Marsha Becker succeeds in displaying indignation without losing her poise. And Rodney Atkins is amusingly clueless as her galumphing great-nephew, .
Atkins is even better as a pair of young boys -- the son of a rich corporate bully-type and later, the grandson of a self-made millionaire. Tom Wyatt plays both patriarchal roles, showing particular flair as the gruff grandfather.
Judi Holloway also proves moving in a geriatric role -- that of an aged mother who is suffering from dementia and is patronized by her insensitive grown children. Maravene S. Loeschke and Jim Hild ably complete the cast.
In the end, "The Dining Room" is like attending a series of dinner parties. As is often the case at such parties, you come home wishing you could have spent more time with some guests, less with others. Gurney's play may be more about surfaces than depth, but at the Maryland Arts Festival, those surfaces sparkle almost as brightly as Aunt Harriet's silver.
Show times for "The Dining Room," in the Studio Theatre at Towson University's Center for the Arts, Osler and Cross Campus drives, are 8: 15 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 2: 15 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $13 and $15. Call 410-830-2787.
`The Leading Lady'
Although Baltimorean Daniel Mark Epstein is best known as a poet, short story writer and biographer, he is also a playwright. "The Leading Lady," his first production in nearly two decades, is making its debut at Theatre Hopkins, and if the play seems stodgy and old-fashioned, perhaps that's because Epstein has labored to make the style fit the time period and subject matter.
Set in an abandoned church in Southern Maryland in 1930, the action focuses on two couples -- a father-daughter acting pair and a grifter and a woman of questionable virtue. At first the only connection between the couples appears to be the fallen woman's efforts to convince the aging actor to help her rob a rich old man she claims stole her youth.
But as the play progresses, more and more connections spring up among these four. The melodramatic tale unfolds relatively slowly, which may be part of the playwright's attempt to imbue the script with an antique feel. But the pacing is a little too creaky for a modern audience, and the structure, which repeatedly strands pairs of characters in the church, feels formulaic.
J.R. Lyston revels in the role of the fading actor, who once shared the stage with the great Edwin Booth. The role exemplifies Epstein's affection for theater. One of the play's most admirable and enjoyable qualities, this affection is evident in everything from the presence of the actor's on-stage theater trunk to the Shakespearean and Greek classics he rehearses, plays filled with some of the same themes of revenge and injustice that Epstein explores here. Unlike her father, the actor's daughter is reluctant to embark on a stage career, although as played by Tara Bilkins, she occasionally seems more self-conscious than merely reluctant.
Mark Redfield, who also directed and produced the show, gives an assured performance as the grifter. As the mastermind behind the robbery, Bethany Brown has the same type of larger-than-life role and attitude as Lyston, and she makes the most of the similarity, despite being burdened with the bulk of the play's exposition and melodrama.
Redfield is planning to shoot an independent feature of "The Leading Lady." It's the type of small-scale, neo-vintage project that could be filmed in sepia tones, but the writing and direction would benefit from streamlining before the cameras roll.
Show times for "The Leading Lady" at Theatre Hopkins, in the Merrick Barn at Johns Hopkins University, are 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $10. Call 410-516-7159.
Douglas Seale remembered
Douglas Seale, the British actor and director who served as artistic director of Center Stage from 1965 to 1968, died in New York on June 13 at age 85.
Center Stage's managing director, Peter W. Culman, who was hired during Seale's tenure, said of him last week, "He was a director at all three Stratfords -- England, Canada and Connecticut, and he had an unusual grasp of Shakespeare. No less a person than Ogden Nash thought his production of `Titus Andronicus' quote, just fantastic, end quote."
Baltimore actress Vivienne Shub, who appeared in two of Seale's Center Stage productions, said, "I found him to be a very clear, supportive director, very friendly, not a forbidding type, a warm person."
Seale's best-known Broadway role was that of the alcoholic actor in the 1983 production of "Noises Off." He also appeared in films ranging from "Amadeus" to "Ghostbusters II."
Pub Date: 6/28/99