If you’ve experienced large family meals, you will probably recognize in “The Dining Room,” this year’s Dramat freshman production, something of the subtle mental torment that those meals entailed. You will also find yourself better able to tolerate a play that, at times, approaches the painful quality of family conversation.
“The Dining Room” shuffles through a series of tableaus of the early 20th century, revealing the darker social currents hidden beneath the tablecloth of a Leave-it-to-Beaver American dinner table. Its characters struggle to maintain a mannered, proper social identity that never existed apart from the flimsy objects that represent it — the antique furniture and the fingerbowls — but they are increasingly frustrated by their conflicting emotions, by the growing incompatibility between a conventional American self and who they really are. Belonging to no particular time or family, these people are at once tortured and invigorated by the collapse of the norms symbolized by the play’s dining room set.
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The word “shuffles” has been used intentionally. Though the script succeeds in dramatizing the central theme of repression, this production lacks a vitality necessary to keep it feeling authentic. Despite the effective use of overlapping episodes, which eliminates scene changes and emphasizes the interlocking quality of the tableaus, “The Dining Room” moves about half-heartedly, as if it had something on its mind. Often what the audience thinks should be engaging, even what it wants to be engaging, fails to inspire or incite more than polite dinner conversation. Our sympathy for the characters feels like the sort of forced sympathy one extends to distant cousins with broken legs.
While the acting leaves something to be desired, the characters are portrayed well, despite the difficulty inherent in switching roles and costumes within seconds of leaving the stage. But the audience cannot escape a sense that the actors are immersed in a tangible pretense. The acting feels like acting. Voice inflection is at times unnatural; dialogue, similarly, can be excessively or deficiently emotional. In effect, the audience is distinctly aware that it is sitting in a theater watching a play, and that awareness undermines what is supposed to be a psychologically powerful play. Without the subtlety of character and emotion that this production of “The Dining Room” lacks, the characters never become quite real to the audience and never dispel that sharp sense of meta-theatricality.
The play is not, however, devoid of successful moments. One scene in particular shows us what the entire play might have been. A woman (Caroline Minkus ’10), entangled with a husband, another man and a woman, returns to her father (Joshua Silverstein ’10) to re-establish some sense of self in her parents’ home. Here at last the audience finds itself begging her father to listen, to do anything but make pleasant conversation about mixed drinks. Silence is used brilliantly: the scene’s final pause, before the father delivers his last line, is excruciating. At this climactic point we feel real agony of emotion, not the pinpricks of a distant conflict but the pangs of intimate, imminent mental chaos.
For such glimpses of excellence, the trudge through the rest of the play is worth the effort. The audience, which may have been somewhat disappointed at intermission, finds a reward for its patience in the second act. Like the characters in its tragi-comic depiction of dissolving American society, “The Dining Room” grapples with its weaknesses to make of itself something solid and legitimate, and it, too, emerges intact from its inner turmoil.