Playwright: A.R. Gurney. At: New Leaf Theatre at the Lincoln Park. Cultural Center, 2045 Lincoln Park WesT. Phone: 773-516-3546; $15. Runs through: Nov. 17
Archeologists are often faced with the task of reconstructing entire civilizations from a fragment of bedpost or a few shards of pottery, so there's no crime in playwright A.R. Gurney's tracking a half-century of progress in American society using only a single room. The years under scrutiny range from the 1930s to the early 1970s, as reflected in the conversations of a family sufficiently well-off to have a house with a fully-equipped dining room—a table and chairs; a panoply of linens and eating utensils; and servants to gather, prepare and dish up the provender.
But Gurney's purpose is not simple nostalgia, but analysis of a tribal subculture. To this end, he forsakes chronological realism, instead presenting his findings as a montage of scenes from various periods, with only hints of filial continuity, thus highlighting small domestic revolutions otherwise overlooked in the big-picture histories: a smug patriarch's fear of Irish and Italian immigrants' influence on the status quo. Adulterous lovers' concerns over the clan repercussions sure to follow disclosure of their transgression. An affluent matron looking to restore her heirloom furniture under the tutelage of a former stockbroker now turned carpenter. The names and ages of the various maids who remain an indispensable part of the household.
Director Jessica Hutchinson's intent may also have been to guard against modern audiences becoming dazzled by period artifacts, but her decision to approach the play as 'the idea of family as explored though the lens of memory' appears to involve re-inventing it along lines recalling the Symbolists of the Belle Epoch. Under this concept, stage props are all but eliminated, characters drinking from invisible glasses while the sound of clinking ice cubes is conveyed electronically—a gimmick that, while executed with admirable precision, draws more attention to itself than would actual set dressing and hand-held tchotchkes.
What most threatens to push the ambience over the top into artsy-academic ambiguity, however, is the funereal tone engendered by ghostly slipcovers whose removal and replacement bracket the play's action, coupled with relentlessly pensive incidental music appropriate for Strindberg, perhaps, but wholly at odds with Gurney's homely Yankee idiom and the anthropologist's emotional detachment. The mostly young actors do their best to ignore these curiously matched motifs, valiantly adhering to their text, but they only barely succeed in rescuing this New Leaf production from surrender to auteur-gone-wild preciosity.