On Wednesday evening Nov. 4, 2015, in the Yulman Theater, the Union Theater Department opened its run of the “The Dining Room.”
There will be performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday at 2 p.m.
Originally conceived as an off-broadway production, “The Dining Room” was written by American playwright A.R. Gurney and premiered in January 1982.
“The Dining Room” plays out as a series of vignettes with little relation to one another.
The centerpiece of the play is, per the title, a dining room, with a massive table and lavish set of chairs rushed out of production in the late nineteenth century.
Over the course of a century, the dining room is placed through the hands of different owners, reflecting its occupants’ attitudes towards tradition through the passage of time. The play jumps between different decades, sometimes overlapping storylines one over the other between foreground and background. But Gurney hones in his focus on the white upper-class and generational conflict.
Some characters recur, others show up just once. A family struggles to penetrate through their grandmother’s Alzheimer’s at Thanksgiving dinner. A son takes notes on his father’s final requests. A mother hides her affair from her son abruptly returned home from school. A daughter takes refuge at her parents’ house after a number of failed relationships.
“The Dining Room” is many things, but, above all, it is an actor’s showcase. It asks its performers to adopt up to five different characters over the course of almost two hours.
The Union production expands the original cast from six members to nine, requiring each performer to adopt a different generation’s speech patterns and dress code in the time it takes to make a wardrobe change.
Roughly 200 props and 80 costumes are utilized to capture the different time periods.
The transitions can be jarring, particularly when moments drenched in sentiment give way from broad comedy to intense melodrama.
While the fragments cover similar territory, the play as a whole lacks a consistent tone. That the cast is more than enthusiastic to immerse themselves in a given situation somewhat alleviates the problem.
The effect doesn’t always work, but when it does, it can be quite lovely.
There’s a moment early on where a father-daughter spat dissolves into a tour by a prospective owner some years later (or earlier, it is hard to tell sometimes, and deliberately so).
Moments like this make the passage of time more poignant, but longer digressions threaten to put a halt to the play’s brisk pacing of its 18 scenes.
The dining room is the kind of space that forces families together, regardless of whether or not they can stand each other. We see long-term resentments rekindled, which only seem to drift further from a resolution.
While there is very little connection between these set-ups, perhaps that’s the point. Maybe these failing relationships will simply turn over and over through the course of history, each conflict dying away as the dining room is handed off to the next owner.