Theater review: The Dining Room

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In case you didn't get the memo, family conversation is extinct and manners were flushed down the toilet decades ago. With an intriguing mix of ceremony and casualness, playwright A.R. Gurney convened his audience in 1982 at the site where both fossils once thrived, The Dining Room. The corpses were fresher in the ground back then in pre-history, but nostalgia for manners and family communion remains almost as fervid as the fire that still burns for the Confederacy, so the relevance of Gurney's prime subjects remains strong.

But times have changed, as the current Three Bone Theatre production makes abundantly clear. They've taken Gurney and his admirably diverse and detailed paean to upright and uptight WASPs and dragged it upstairs to UpStage in NoDa, a venue supremely antithetical to this comedy's setting and spirit.

Politeness, punctiliousness, and perfect grammar feel particularly prissy and antiquated engulfed in UpStage's roadhouse ambiance. Directed by Debora Stanton Paules, the Three Bone production widens the timeline, transporting three of the 18 scenes into the 1990s and four more into the new millennium. Also expanded is the ensemble, from the six who performed the original off-Broadway version to eight here. Maybe that many were needed to bring that somewhat stately wooden table up the narrow staircase to UpStage! Not to worry, with more than 50 characters parading in and out of the overlapping scenes, there are plentiful roles for everybody in this solid cast.

Here and there, as we hopscotch back and forth through the years beginning in 1941 and spanning to the present day, Paules shifts the distribution of genders along with the distribution of roles. That's certainly true in the most iconic of Gurney's scenes, where Aunt Harriet, portrayed by Mara Rosenberg, is flattered that her niece Tony has taken enough interest in her Waterford crystal to photograph it for her college course at Amherst. Or she is until she learns that the niece, played by Carmen Bartlett, is doing an anthropological study on the eating habits of dying cultures - in this instance, the WASPs of the Northeast and their diseased fixation on cleanliness.

As we zigzag in time, we're duly instructed in finger bowls, table manners, and the customary indifference lavished upon servants. Meanwhile we also learn that upper-crust propriety doesn't preclude infidelity, the ravages of Alzheimer's, a lesbian tryst under the table, and a scandalous outbreak of homosexuality. Not surprisingly, the most hilarious scenes are the most raucous. In Act 1, there's a toddler birthday party that's a cacophonous symphony of ensemble regression careening out of control. Topping that is a family dinner that family patriarch Standish must abandon to defend his brother's honor, because some bloke named Binky has had the audacity to publicly call Standish's brother a fruit at his men's club!

Now Standish, portrayed with grim and gritty resoluteness by Bill Reilly, knows that Binky towers over him and will likely thrash him in an open confrontation. And it goes without saying that Binky's slur is perfectly accurate in its malice. Yet our knight errant must go quixotically into battle when family pride is under siege, and he will not be stopped from making his majestic military exit. Of course, in the 30 years since The Dining Room was first produced, the absurdity of Standish's umbrage and his brother's shame has been compounded. So at times Gurney's play is as quaint and curious as the musty manners he memorializes.

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