In a single dining room revisited over the course of the 20th Century, a series of family dramas show the decline of the American upper-middle class. Offering the potential for both comedy and emotionally hard-hitting terrain, sadly this performance from the American High School Theatre Festival was decidedly anaemic.
Whilst by no means a disaster, The Dining Room lacked the spark it needed to make it a great play.
The seven-strong cast played a variety of roles, ranging from uptight parents to children attempting to disown the older generation’s intolerant attitudes. You’d have thought this would have meant plenty of variety, but unfortunately the vignettes all seemed virtually identical. Even a scene in which two schoolgirls surreptitiously swig their parents gin hardly differed from the decorum and formality of the older characters they were meant to be rebelling against. Each ‘slice of life’ needed to have a unique mood to keep things interesting, but instead the show quickly felt repetitive.
The cast also took A. R. Gurney’s play much more seriously than they needed to, and several scenes would have benefited from a bit of humour. The uptight patriarchs and outdated values are meant to be slightly ridiculous, but we are never invited to laugh at them. At one point, a middle-aged father (Sam Boitt) gets worked into a frenzy by a petty comment about his brother and prepares to leave for his club to exact revenge, and still everyone played it straight! Similarly, Jacob Beitle’s disciplinarian father holding forth at the breakfast table could have been either threatening or comedic, but just ended up being slightly boring.
All of the cast could have done with a bit more energy; Emma Belkin in particular seemed bereft of passion when engaged in a spat with her newly divorced ex-husband. Similarly, an emotional scene in which a daughter in turmoil (Leah Huntleg) turns to her father (Duncan White) for help fell flat; neither actor plumbed the possible emotional depths of the exchange and their confrontation failed to develop to a crisis. That said, all of the young actors still have plenty of time to hone their craft; White showed particular promise, giving an immersive performance at times, and multi-roling confidently.
Whilst by no means a disaster, The Dining Room lacked the spark it needed to make it a great play. Its lack of energy and tonal variety meant that it never truly grabbed our attention or forced us to care about its large cast of characters.