Under the Lights, CMC’s theater club, is presenting The Dining Room, a play by A.R. Gurney, in the Athenaeum on Tuesday and Wednesday. At times funny, at times poignant, the play takes place exclusively in a dining room and tells the story of the various generations of WASPs that inhabit it.
The play is an ambitious project for Under the Lights. With eighteen independent scenes with different characters, the actors are required to constantly switch roles. The cast impressively handles the difficult material, and The Dining Room is well worth seeing.
Karun Kiani ’14 plays both a father and a grandfather. In one particularly funny scene, Kiani plays a crotchety old man denying his grandson’s wishes to go to boarding school to meet interesting people: “I know interesting types right here… I know a man who plays golf with his wife!”
Laila Heid ’14 also stands out for her subtle portrayal of complicated women. In one scene, Heid convincingly plays an upper class mother having an argument with her child, obsessing about the child missing horse riding lessons, an impressive feat for a twenty-two year old actress. In another powerful scene, Heid plays an adulteress, whose flippant attitude make the audience wonder if she understands the seriousness of her transgressions.
Similarly, Clancy Tripp ’14 effectively depicts a frustrated housewife admonishing her housekeeper. When “the help” botches her poached eggs, Tripp, clearly annoyed, observes “Sometimes, these things are better done by ourselves.” Understated lines like this make the play—hinting at the characters’ lack of self-awareness and hypocrisy without being too over the top. Tripp also masterfully commands the stage in the play’s final monologue.
Dante Toppo ’15 amuses with his William F. Buckley-esque portrayal of a WASP-y psychiatrist and impresses as an adulterer caught in a place he shouldn’t be. Other notable performances include Celia Flinn ’16, Anoush Baghdassarian ’17, Iris Liu ’16, and Sam Stone ’14.
At times the play falls flat—with characters changing every scene, the audience occasionally struggles to follow the story. The main disappointment of the night, however, was the venue itself. While an impressive set design transforms the Ath into a theater venue, one wonders why UTL did not try another venue more naturally suited to theater, and one is left wishing that CMC had a dedicated modern performing arts space that could better support these types of performances.
The cast’s most impressive feat is to both have fun with and humanize characters that might be caricatured in less able hands. In one funny but touching scene, Tony (Sam Stone) is given a tour of his upper crust Aunt Harriet’s (Anoush Baghdassarian) dining room finery and taught how to properly use a finger bowl. Tony, taking pictures and notes, tells his aunt that he has chosen the “WASPs of the Northeast United States” for an anthropology class project on vanishing cultures. The audience laughs, but Aunt Harriet is upset and hurt; she is vanishing alongside her culture, a realization that somehow renders the finger bowl a sentimental object.
Towards the end of the first act, a handyman is inspecting the dining room table. To the owner’s surprise, it’s not a European antique, but an American-made model from the 1890s. “All these years I thought it was valuable,” the owner says, surprised and disappointed. The superficial trappings of wealth in The Dining Room might separate the characters from the rest of us, but the stories told inside are touchingly, and hilariously, human.