Having spent the last few years attacking the Bush administration in such works as "Mrs. Farnsworth" and "Screen Play," A.R. Gurney returns home - figuratively and literally - with "Indian Blood," his heartfelt new play, which is getting a superlative production at Primary Stages under the pitch-perfect direction of Mark Lamos.
In this highly autobiographical work, Gurney - the master of W.A.S.P. culture - revisits the Buffalo of his childhood right after World War II, as one wealthy family grasps on their genteel way of life, almost oblivious to the societal changes around them. But "Indian Blood" is somewhat less concerned with painting this big picture than focusing on the coming-of-age of Eddie (the excellent Charles Socarides), a sensitive and slightly rebellious teenager who causes an uproar when he is caught drawing a pornographic picture in Latin class. Eddie chooses to blame much of his hot-headed behavior on the Indian blood coursing through his veins courtesy of his paternal great-great-grandmother; but his rebellious spirit seems also to be inherited from his mother Jane (Rebecca Luker), a bright woman chafing under her marriage to the ultra-conventional Harvey (Jack Gilpin) and especially his devotion to his outwardly weak yet inwardly strong mother (Pamela Payton-Wright).
In debts both acknowledged and unacknowledged to such theatrical predecessors as Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" and Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," Gurney has structured "Indian Blood" as an actual play narrated by Eddie, who constantly apologizes for the lack of props on stage; the minimal set is well designed by John Arnone and aided by Leah Gelpe's fine onstage projections. Gurney gets a laugh or two from these declarations, but the concept seems an unnecessary, distancing device that occasionally takes us out of an engrossing story.
Lamos, who has consistently both proven his adeptness at precise staging and his facility with actors over his long career, has help deliver some of the best work of these fine actors' careers. Luker, who is primarily known as one of musical theater's leading ladies, gives a finally wrought portrayal of Jane. Maybe not wanting to disappoint Luker's fans completely, Gurney allows her to sing a couple of verses of "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." (The song is preceded by a brilliant in-joke.). Payton-Wright, an underappreciated treasure of the stage, is the ideal mixture of steel and lavender, and Gilpin brings just enough humanity to the stodgy Harvey. Matthew Arkin scores in two smallish roles, Eddie's teacher, Mr. Kenyon, and Harvey's "confirmed bachelor" brother Paul, Jeremy Blackman is dead-on as Eddie's less affluent, resentful cousin Lambert, and Katherine McGrath nicely delineates a variety of servants and secretaries.
But the play's finest performance belongs to John McMartin, who takes the almost stock-like role of Harvey's wise father and turns it into a triumph of freshness. Impish one minute, world-weary the next, McMartin captures every color of the part and captures the audience's hearts as well.