This review of Douglaston Community Theatre's production of A.R. Gurney's The Dining Room at Zion Episcopal Church was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
The Dining Room
Written by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Linda Hanson
Douglaston Community Theatre
Zion Episcopal Church
243-01 Northern Boulevard
Douglaston, New York 11363
White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, especially well-to-do Episcopalians, are the subject of A.R. Gurney's play The Dining Room. A series of overlapping vignettes take place around a dining room table manufactured in 1898 by Freeman's Furniture in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania but designed to look older. We catch glimpses of family life over many decades and observe the importance of etiquette, decorum and the politeness expected of people living in their upper-class communities and attending the Prep Schools, Boarding Schools, and Ivy League Colleges their children are expected to go to. Parents instruct their children regarding the social skills they will need to succeed. They learn how to dress, speak and act in various social situations. More importantly, etiquette in this context is used to remind people of their own status within society and to reinforce certain restrictions on individuals within that society. After all, if everyone did what felt good in the moment, "you might end up getting 'overstimulated' like your aunt did after she ran away with a man she loved."
One needs to learn the rules, use proper grammar, and value discretion. Children may sit at the dining room table when they are ready to act and speak like adults. No one starts to eat until everyone is seated and no one leaves the table until everyone has finished their meal. Seating should be girl-boy, girl-boy. Little boys are supposed to help little girls. Parents sit at opposite ends of the dining room table, which should never be used for storage, sorting laundry, or for typing. Men may not wear hats inside the home unless at a birthday party. Proper decorum should always be observed because "it is a Dining Room and not the Monkey House at the Zoo." The telephone should be taken off the hook during dinner, which is at the same time each evening. It is expected that children should take dancing and horse riding lessons. Learning a musical instrument is also encouraged. The family's good china should remain on display as a symbol of their wealth but talking about your wealth would be considered crude.
Many found these rules to be "oppressive and brutal." Over time, what was expected of family members changed even though etiquette is still used to distinguish oneself from the unwashed, uneducated brutes of the lower classes. No longer can most families afford a full-time cook, gardener, and two maids. Servants' quarters have been closed off. People now eat "in living rooms and kitchens balancing their plates like jugglers - soon they'll be eating in bathrooms, and why not, it will simplify the process considerably." Children now live a thousand miles away, disappear for the summer and rarely write. Mothers may even "let guests use the good Beefeater gin who just want to mix it with tonic water." Fortunes are fading, grandmother's silverware has been stolen, many of your good pieces of China were destroyed when the movers dropped them, no one can afford to run elaborate parties anymore and getting good help is almost impossible. (One maid who was leaving said, "You'll manage." The woman of the house responded, "No. Not like this!") Family members don't drink liquor the way they used to. Now drinking Earl Grey tea at the dining room table is acceptable. The world is changing even though they are trying to hold on to their customs and lifestyles. The last line of the first act is, "We just have to go through the motions" and perhaps that is what people are now doing. Still, they can't go back. One daughter, who is asking her father to let her move back home with her children tells him, "I can't go back." Rejecting her plea to return, the father says, "Neither can I sweetheart. Neither can I."
One hilarious scene involves a young man's plea to his grandfather for tuition money to attend St. Luke's Boarding School. It is High Episcopalian and the young man wants to meet more sophisticated people from New York City and Boston. He reports his mom thinks "these boys will buff me up" and tells his grandfather he looks forward to being "buffed up." The cast members could barely contain their laughter. The other worthwhile story involves Standish and his brother Henry. Supposedly, Henry was insulted at his club by Binky Byers, who made "an unfortunate remark to him (in front of others) having to do with Henry's private life alluding in very specific terms to his personal relationships in the outside world." Standish was intent not to let it stand. He was going down to the club "to demand a public apology from Binky" and if he refused, he would "just have to fight him." When asked by his wife to have dinner first, Standish responds: "There is nothing, nothing I'd rather do in this world, then sit down at this table with all of you and have some lamb with mint sauce and roast potatoes...But I have to forego it. My own brother has been publicly insulted at his club, and that means our family has been insulted, and when the family has been insulted, that means this table, these chairs, this room, and all of us in it...are being treated with scorn." After Standish leaves, his son David asks his mom whether it is true that Uncle Henry is gay. She responds, "It may very well be true - but you don't say it to him, you don't say it at the club, and you certainly don't say it within a ten-mile radius of your father."
The Dining Room was written by A.R. Gurney (Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Jr.). It was first produced Off-Broadway at the Studio Theatre of Playwrights Horizons on January 31, 1981. It transferred to the Astor Place Theatre on February 24, 1982 closing there on July 17, 1982. A cast of six (three men and three women) portrays over 50 characters during 18 scenes from different households that overlap and intertwine. Don't try to keep track of the stories or the characters. They go by too quickly. The six actors in this production were Michael Wolf, Annette Daiell, Joe Pepe, Sharon Levine, Dan Bubbeo, and Adrianne Noroian. They all worked very hard to put on this complex play and I commend them all for their effort. However, even though the play was staged in an Episcopal Church, the speech patterns and dress of the characters did not reflect the "High Episcopalian" social class with which I am familiar. (Many of whom attended St. Thomas Church, incorporated January 9, 1824, located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street in Manhattan.) If the actors made the effort to speak with the proper dialect, they failed. If they intended their mannerisms and dress to be reflective of the upper-class culture they were depicting, the attempt was unsuccessful. You need both to make this play a success. The script alone is not enough to give you insight into an entire social class. Perhaps the problem was that the director approached this play like any other, casting local actors instead of searching for actors that would be more suited to playing High Episcopalian White Anglo-Saxon Protestants from New England.
That being said, there are many enjoyable moments in this play. It allows you to reflect upon how the culture has changed and whether you would want to go back to those days if you could. If you have not yet seen The Dining Room, here is your chance! Tickets cost $17.00 for adults; $15.00 for students & seniors. For reservations, call 718-482-3332 or visit their website at http://www.spotlightonstage.com/dct.htm