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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Westport Country Playhouse


  James Waterston and Mary Bacon/Ph: T. Charles Erickson

As self-anointed chronicler of the species Northeastern WASP (subspecies Buffalo), the prolific playwright A.R. Gurney has tended at times to be overly clinical. He's astute when outlining the class's salient characteristics - the knee-jerk conservativism, unrepentant antisemitism, and penchant for adultery, often prompted by the regrets that come with devotion to duty. But pinned butterflies, however, fascinating, don't always lend themselves to intense drama.

In Children, an early (1974) play now treated to a splendid revival at the Westport Country Playhouse and headed for the Williamstown  Theater Festival later this summer, Gurney made use of superb primary material: not just his own upbringing, but John Cheever's 1951 story Goodbye My Brother, about a self-righteous sibling who refuses to play along to get along. Cleverly keeping the malcontent "changeling" silent and all but unseen, Gurney chose to focus instead on the family members who rattle in his orbit.

Judith Light plays "Mother," a widow contemplating a late-life love match with an old family friend. According to the terms of her late husband's will, it'll mean ceding the family's summer house on an island off the Massachusetts coast ( James Noone's set is suitably weathered), to the joint custody  of her three adult children. Cue the sibling rivalry, as old resentments bubble to the surface.

Light is brilliant at conveying what Cheever described as this matriarch's "asperity," even if she does overcompensate when attempting a patrician's broad A's ( it took me a full minute to decipher the comment "People are like plahnts"). That little hitch should dissipate as Light relaxes into the role - while ideally, retaining the near-military stance of a standard-bearer laboring against all odds, to halt the downward march of clan mores. Coke with meals? What's next, a Communist takeover?

Though daughter Barbara ( Kate Finneran, very much to the manner born) shares Mother's distaste for such departures from tradition, she's defiantly doing some slumming herself: she has embarked on a declasse affair. Son Randy ( James Waterston), while outwardly well adjusted, appears to be a case of arrested development. Now a teacher, at heart he's just a perennial "prepster." To Randy's wife Jane ( lovely Mary Bacon), who herself is feeling the rumblings of feminist revolt. Mother confesses her all-but-inadmissible attachment to her problem child, the lurking "Pokey" -so nicknamed for his tendency to stir things up.

Under John Tillinger's subtle, expert direction, Children is an entrancing, Chekhovian portrait of family members forced to confront themselves, one another, and their tangled dynamics in the face of inevitable change. WASPs they may be to the core, but their dilemma cuts across socioeconomic boundaries.



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