‘Scenes From American Life’

Princeton Summer Theater closes its season with this early A.R. Gurney effort.

By: Stuart Duncan
   Princeton Summer Theater is closing its season with A.R. Gurney’s Scenes From American Life, a curious choice for the group that had huge successes with Proof and Private Lives.
   The Gurney work is a very early effort, written a dozen years before his breakout hit, The Dining Room, and 19 years before his best play, The Cocktail Hour, and his most popular, Love Letters. For a group that has shown extraordinary talent this season, the evening is unchallenging and therefore mildly unsatisfying.
   Faithful to its title, the play is a string of vignettes, of varying lengths, following in more or less chronological order from the birth of a son to a well-to-do family in Buffalo, N.Y., through crises, mostly minor, into the future in some imagined socialist society. Gurney is careful to point out that the name Buffalo has been given to the city not because of the animal, but rather from the French term "beau fleur" — that is to say "beautiful flower." It is a concept he will use again years later in The Dining Room, as well as The Middle Ages and, indeed, The Cocktail Hour.
   There are scenes depicting a stern father, unyielding but well-armed with values, and a loving but submissive mother. We will see these again, and we will see instances of outside influences, generally representative of an affluent lifestyle. The cast of eight assumes many roles, not always well-defined, and moves a few chairs and a pair of short stairs, split into equal sections. Throughout the two-hour piece, a versatile pianist, Erica Schlegel, underscores the activity, playing more than five-dozen American standards, everything from rock to classical, as we wend our way through the decades.
   Gurney’s concepts are loosely formed, loosely knit and expressed mostly without venom. It is as if he were hiding as much emotionally as his characters seem to be — as if to reveal it might be offensive. His later works would conquer that fear; this early work does not. And thus the tapestry of history and politics, which so clearly molded Gurney’s young life, is muted as if a nanny had cut the meat into small pieces so they might be more easily digested.
   A fine cast, led by a quartet we have admired this summer already — Jed Peterson, Jonathan Elliott, Anissa Naouai and Nicole Kontolefa — is augmented by Theodore Hall, Christine Scarfuto, Rob Walsh and Marisol Rosa-Shapiro. The last named also directed.
   The most haunting scene is one that takes place in dancing class — the usual lineup of girls, tightly clustered, and boys, equally anxious. Mr. Peterson plays the dance instructor, elegant, standing ramrod straight and formidable, apparently both in stature and discipline. What is missing are the white gloves — on the girls because in that era it was de rigeur, but also on the boys. Rule No. 8: The boys must wear gloves so as not to leave a sweaty palm print on the back of partner’s frock.
Scenes From American Life continues at the Hamilton Murray Theater, Murray-Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through Aug. 15. Performances: Thurs.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 2 p.m. For information, call (609) 258-7062. On the Web: www.princetonsummertheater.org