Pull Up a Chair

The Dining Room is Open

Saturday May 19, 07
by Tricia Danflous, StageClick.com

You feel right at home from the moment you take your seat in the Actor’s Theatre of New Orleans’ (ATNO) spring production of The Dining Room. The open set, featuring a formal dining room, of course, is warm, inviting and comfortable. It’s sure to remind you of your grandmother’s home and the sanctity of special occasions around the table.

If you lost several generations of furniture in Hurricane Katrina, you may appreciate this two-act play more than most. You will be reminded, over and over again, that the greatest value of material possessions is the memories they evoke. The script is alternately funny, nostalgic and poignant and the ATNO cast carries it out in a well-timed performance sure to stimulate more than a few personal memories.

A.R. Gurney’s The Dining Room, originally produced off-Broadway in the early eighties, features concise vignettes depicting human emotions, frustrations, dalliances and joys. All scenes take place in a dining room with a cast of seven taking on 58 roles. The room, and centerpiece table are pivotal to the action and dialogue, which moves from the 1920s to contemporary time.

Jeff Riddick’s simple, but functional set design is more than appropriate for the intimate ATNO facility. Minimal props, are not only used to subtly take you from one scene to another but also take you through the subtle passage of time. A portable, manual typewriter dropped carelessly on the dining table, for example, provides a time reference in the same way a film camera (complete with wide and colorful strap around the neck – I think it was the same one I gave to Goodwill a few years ago) signals another era.

Direction by Stocker Fontelieu is what you would expect. The Dining Room is well-casted, smooth transitions and enough action to maintain interest while not cluttering a small stage. Picture the revolving doors at the old Roosevelt Hotel on Baronne Street – that’s the way this production works. One vignette concludes just as another starts, with characters continually entering and exiting as different characters for a different story line. It works and Fontelieu’s sense of timing is key to pulling off seamless transitions.

My favorite actress in the production is Chelle Ambrose. As a little kid celebrating a birthday, a teen raiding the liquor cabinet, or a wife returning to school, Ambrose is just right. Her facial expressions are in perfect sync with each character she portrays. You’ll be glad that you are sitting in a small theatre and close to the stage to see every movement. While Ambrose has quite a few funny scenarios, her close-to-the end portrayal of a young mother who wants – and needs - to return to her parents’ home is the best. In less than a few minutes, you see her go from nervous, but in control woman to one who is breaking down, alone and sobbing in the dining room.

Helen Blanke, who primarily plays the mother role in most of her scenes, is consistent and entertaining, with some of the script’s best set-up lines. Playing Aunt Harriet, she delivers an amusing discourse on the proper way to set a formal table while her college age nephew photographs the presentation. With each click of the camera, she relaxes just a bit more and eventually hams it up for a short but very funny scene. When the character realizes her words are the foundation for a study on the “eating habits of a vanishing culture” pride rapidly turns to insult and Blanke make it even funnier.

Not too young, not too old and good-looking Leon Contavesprie is just right for this production. When he plays a child, you think he’s a child with speech patterns that remind you of the hesitation and struggle youngsters experience when talking to adults, especially in the formal dining room. When he portrays a teen or young adult, he looks a little more mature. When he plays an older son listening to his father’s funeral wishes, his eyes do the acting as he slowly moves from semi-attentive patience to recognition that death is around the corner. Contavesprie is more than a character actor, but this production of characters is a great fit for him.

Jimmy Murphy, who takes on more of the fatherly roles, comes to life in the second act, displaying emotions ranging from anger to sorrow. He is avenging, irate and funny when he learns a brother was accused of being a “fruit.” You assume it’s the fifties, thanks to the thick-framed glasses everyone in the dining room is wearing, and Murphy is anyone’s uncle, father or grandfather during that time. His best scenario, however, is the empty nest father dealing with a daughter and three grandchildren who want to come home. He’s grumpy, crotchety and thoughtful as he faces both his daughter’s needs and his own.

Arvilla Miller Riddick opens the play as a real estate agent introducing the dining room and guiding the audience to imagine the rest of the home. She remains a key character in her roles providing transitional lines, exits and entrances. Riddick has a strong, steady voice and with minimal movements conveys strong messages. She may be playing a maid in the background, for example, but you can’t miss her presence. Her portrayal of a matriarch with Alzheimer’s disease will have you teary-eyed remembering past Thanksgiving dinners with the whole family or thinking about an elderly relative.

How can you not enjoy seeing Michael Sullivan on stage? With just a few costume adjustments, he’s a totally different character. Although his voice doesn’t significantly change throughout the production, he is such fun to listen to you don’t mind that type of consistency. Watching him play a little boy at a birthday party is a highlight of the production.

Just like Contavesprie, Andrea Watson is a good choice for The Dining Room and the roles she is assigned. She looks like a kid and acts like a kid when necessary, but is equally convincing as a seductive housewife or recent divorcee crawling under the dining room table. Watson works well with each of cast member, demonstrating a versatility that draws you to her without detracting from the others. There must be a word to describe such a talent in the theatrical profession, but I don’t know what it is. Good acting, maybe?

The Dining Room is certainly not an earth-shaking production. It is a good one. In post-Katrina days, however, it may be more relevant and more nostalgic for the greater New Orleans community. Good timing on stage and good timing for such a show.

Back Row Facts:

Length of play – two hours and ten minutes, give or take a minute or two.

Language and Lewd Factor – maybe a couple of words you wouldn’t want your child to use in public, but nothing you don’t hear every day.

Family fitness - certainly not for young kids, but high school and up should appreciate this play. Script is well written. English majors or aspiring writers would benefit from seeing this show.

It’s puzzlement! Why haven’t I seen more productions at the Actor’s Theatre of New Orleans? Nice facility, free-parking, reasonable ticket prices and a great atmosphere for a traditional, non-musical production.