Family Devalues

Three plays by white men track America's slipping standards

We buy them, temporarily, because of Rapp's two major assets here: his verbal flair and his love of actors. The play's language, far fresher than its grimly predictable action, flies in freewheeling patterns from the lowest profanity up to high metaphysics, as if Rapp's restless mind kept lists of extravagant nouns to be dropped in for detonative effect. The flavorsome phrases enrich the opportunities he gives his cast, as director, for boldly shaped performances.

Less stately mansion: Fuller, Foote, and Ashley in 
Dividing the Estate
James Leynse
Less stately mansion: Fuller, Foote, and Ashley in Dividing the Estate


Dividing the Estate
By Horton Foote
Primary Stages
59 East 59th Street

American Sligo
By Adam Rapp
Rattlestick Theater
224 Waverly Place

The Dining Room
By A.R. Gurney
Clurman Theater
410 West 42nd Street

Equally bold shaping is called for when acting A.R. Gurney's The Dining Room, a play that's really a sort of revue, its six actors shifting roles, eras, and generations with every scene. Gurney's writing, heartfelt but cerebral, grasps the family structures into which Foote and Rapp slide so familiarly, and holds them up, thin-sliced, for a sort of cubist scrutiny from every imaginable angle. We see the standards society was once meant to uphold, symbolized by the outmoded grandeur of the room itself; we also see the lies, oppression, and exploitation such standards can conceal. A second hearing 25 years later reveals that Gurney's astute inventiveness, and the economical way he makes every detail hew to his theme, have kept his double-edged tribute to the past startlingly fresh in the present. Its revue-sketch nature keeps the play from having a central dramatic motor, but its easy, intelligently modulated flow of sharp wit and sweet sentiment, in alternating currents, makes it a delight nonetheless. Memories of the high-polished original production can't be dimmed, but the current cast, directed by Jonathan Silverstein, seems only marginally less lustrous than their predecessors.

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