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A CurtainUp Review

Labor Day
By Les Gutman

As you walk off West 55th Street and down into the Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I, you are transported into the kind of tranquility one hopes for in a summer home. It's Ralph Funicello's pinpoint accurate evocation of the chicken coop-turned-study in which John (Mitchell McGuire as understudy for Josef Sommer), the essentially autobiographical playwright who is the central character of A. R. Gurney's new play, plies his trade. As desirable as calm may be for a country weekend, or for writing, it's a little questionable as theater.

What Gurney has done in this progression from The Cocktail Hour is similar to what happens when you stand between two mirrors, gazing into reflections of reflections. The subject is a family, headed by a playwright father, spending the holiday weekend at their home in Connecticut. We are seemingly watching the play he is writing. John is wrestling with a script that's based on his own family. His young director, Dennis (Brooks Ashmanskas), anxious to get his big break, has driven up to give him some notes. John's "issue" is whether to make it commercial; his family's is to insure that they like how they are portrayed.

The most interesting thing about this play is that Gurney has essentially reviewed it himself. It's a play about the cynicism of the writing class, and Gurney seems as doubtful about what he has wrought as I am. It's not the structure or formula that fails him; it's the substance. The character John is elated to learn facts about his children that can be plugged in to afford his play some currency. His jock-engineer-son Ralph (James Colby) does engineering for environmental cleanups, he discovers. Gurney needs the same help. Everything he touches seems either stale or dated. A scene between Ralph and the gay director, Dennis, is one of the most hackneyed imaginable. When discussing the keys to a successful commercial production of the play, Dennis says the Shuberts want Robert Redford. Robert Redford??? I suppose autobiography has its price.

Grasping at straws, Gurney, like his alter ego, ends up with precious little. There is some light humor, to be sure, but most of it is about half a beat behind the audience, producing only the predictable laughs of self-congratulation. The most unaffected laugh in the show is also the most out of character: a gag set up by a proposed ending for John's play in which a naked baby crawls on stage and farts. (I wouldn't normally be inclined to share that, but I think it's important to understand the territory in which Gurney is treading here.)

Since I saw Mitchell McGuire, the understudy, I'll pass on making any comments. The wife, Ellen (Joyce Van Patten), is a supportive spouse and a protective mother. I'm not sure if her artificiality is endemic of playwrights' wives, but Van Patten seems to deliver her lines as if she's doing cold readings of one of her husband's scripts.

The supporting cast does its best here to fill in some of the blanks, but it's a pretty thankless task. Ashmanskas is on target as a young director, trying to advance his career, sustain his personal life and maint ain some sense of dignity in the process. Colby is successful in giving the caricature he was assigned to play a genuine personality. Poor Veanne Cox, who plays the lawyer daughter Ginny, has been given hardly any material at all; it's hard to say much more than that she didn't seem to do anything wrong. We know much more about another sibling who never even makes it onstage.  

Labor Day is the most recent in an epidemic of plays by "star" playwrights that appear to have been produced solely due to their provenance. Perhaps it's time for this "genetic" theory of play-picking to take a holiday.

by A. R. Gurney 
Directed by Jack O'Brien 
with Brooks Ashmanskas, James Colby, Veanne Cox, Mitchell McGuire (understudy for Josef Sommer) and Joyce Van Patten 
Set Design: Ralph Funicello 
Costume Design: Michael Krass 
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner 
Sound Design: Jeff Ladman 
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I, 131 West 55th phone is West 55th Street (6/7 AV)(212/581-1212 )  - 
 Began performances 5/14/98-7/22/98; opened 6/01/98b 
Reviewed by Les Gutman June 14, 1998

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