Albert Ramsdell Gurney, Jr. had a well-attended birthday celebration.
Monday night, faculty and students packed Stage II of New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre to watch a performance of “Mrs. Farnsworth,” written by acclaimed playwright A.R. Gurney DRA ’58.
But while Gurney sat in the audience — and even had his birthday party in the lobby after the show — the clear star of the night was another famous Yale alum: Sigourney Weaver DRA ’74, who starred as the titular lead.
Monday’s free performance was sponsored by the Beinecke and the “O’Neill Studio.” The “O’Neill Studio” is a branch of the “O’Neill at Yale” project, whose aim is to fund the performances of plays by Eugene O’Neill and inspire members of the Yale and New Haven communities to write plays influenced by O’Neill’s work.
The show also commemorated Gurney’s donation of his complete plays and writings to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
The play was preceded by remarks from Long Wharf executive staff members and “O’Neill at Yale” coordinators. The short speeches provided an opportunity not only to celebrate Gurney’s generosity and discuss the future of the program, but also to urge the audience to vote in Tuesday’s election. Beginning with these public service announcements and sprinkled with not-so-subtle criticisms of President George W. Bush ’68, the opening statements set the tone for the evening and the performance of the highly-political play.
The play is set in a nightly writing class taught by Gordon (Danny Burnstein), a “lowly lecturer” at the sponsoring university who proudly plans to forgo professorship in favor of a life as a part-time teacher and a full-time author.
At the play’s opening, Burnstein reads aloud a note he has received from one Mrs. Marjorie Farnsworth (Weaver), who begs to go first during tonight’s rounds of sharing and peer critique. Gordon grants the request, and soon Mrs. Farnsworth reveals the plot to a book she plans to write. The story includes juicy details involving sex, scandal and blackmail payoffs between a Vassar girl and a Yale boy.
The most alarming aspect is this nefarious antagonist’s undeniable resemblance to Bush.
The lithe Weaver, who attended boarding school in Connecticut, convincingly portrays a hopelessly patrician but endearingly WASP-y housewife from New Canaan. The actress’ performance is bolstered by her graceful gold and pearl jewelry and her ability to effortlessly drop humorous allusions to upper-class Connecticut strongholds Darien and Fisher’s Island.
At the opening of the play, Burnstein’s character peers into the audience, calling out for the elusive Mrs. Farnsworth to emerge. When Weaver ran out from the wings, the audience exploded in applause mid-scene.
Weaver continued to garner audience affirmation for her portrayal of the virgin-eared, old-money homemaker throughout the night. She consistently received hearty laughs — whether performing physical comedy in the form of profanity-induced grimaces or embodying perky self-righteousness while freely dispensing her grandmother’s hand-me-down aphorisms.
A somber tone colors the action in the second half of the play. By the time the curtain comes down on Gurney’s provocative tale, the audience’s assumptions about Mrs. Farnsworth, her relationship with her husband, and the veracity of her juicy confessions are seriously challenged, if not totally disproved.
Viewers are left with the task of disentangling an ambiguous ending on their own, but the skill of the actors and the script’s sophisticated humor makes the production an appropriate piece to celebrate Yale’s theatrical tradition.
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