It’s doubtful that anyone would call A.R. Gurney America’s greatest playwright, but he’s unquestionably our most professional playwright. He’s always ready with a new script—the show under review is one of three Gurney premieres this season—and each new script gives a reliable evening’s portion of entertainment, composed of carefully balanced theatrical nutrients: x percent comedy, y percent drama, this many milligrams of psychological nuance and personal revelation, the minimum daily requirement of political awareness, minute dashes of self-conscious theatricality added for flavor, plus tradition (non- binding, sugar-free) as a preservative. Gurney is good for you.
I don’t mean this at all sarcastically. Gurney’s plays may be formulaic, but the formula is worked out honestly, like that of an FDA-approved dietary supplement, and painstakingly varied, with the dignity of an honorable manufacturer tailoring his product to the public’s need. Gurney plays keep your theatrical system running smoothly. They cause no disturbing side effects. Periodically he turns out one, like The Dining Room or The Cocktail Hour, in which the mix of flavor and energizing substance is so exhilarating that repeated dosages are advised. Though always moderate in his approach, he never shies away from using controversial elements, which can produce startlingly positive results, as in The Old Boy or The Fourth Wall. Anthropologists from other planets who drop by in the future, wanting to know what middle-class Americans thought and felt in the years before George W. Bush succeeded in reducing the planet to rubble, will find a lot of helpful material in Gurney’s collected works.
Indian Blood, Primary Stages’ contribution to the season-long Gurney fest, is medium-strength Gurney: never foolish, easy to digest, and reassuringly familiar, though only mildly stimulating. Like many of his plays, it scrutinizes the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ruling class of pre-1950s Buffalo, where Gurney’s forebears were what American journalists used to call “leading citizens.” Gurney cherishes his WASP heritage, on which he has based countless works, almost as much as he adores ridiculing it. His family plays are all partly brag, partly embarrassed shrug, and partly wry smile at the thought of his having come from old money and old traditions.
The title of this quasi-autobiographical piece is a classic instance of Gurney’s knack for toying with the ironies of his situation: While the old WASP establishment traditionally turned up its nose in public about people of mixed-race ancestry, family secrets about intermarriage in the distant past could be a point of pride within the clan. The pubescent hero, Eddie (Charles Socarides), who clearly represents the young Gurney on the verge of discovering his vocation as an artist, has acquired his grandfather’s habit of claiming “Indian blood” (via a great-great-grandfather’s Seneca second wife) as an excuse for any impulse to step out of line. His nemesis, Lambert (Jeremy Blackman), is a priggish and devious classmate, a second cousin who actually is one-quarter Tuscarora (owing to a brief misalliance by one of the clan’s black sheep) and spends his days trying to live it down by getting in good with all the family adults. Knowing that sentimental endings are hard for audiences to swallow these days, Gurney has the tact not to make the two boys become friends at the final curtain, and knowing that his title image is almost certain to raise somebody’s hackles, he carefully weaves discreet apologias for it into the text, along with witty variations on the idea, meant to underscore how much our European-based American culture owes to an awareness of Native American cultures. These defensive strategies, like so much of Gurney’s proficiency, have the charm of their professionalism; Gurney is a label you can rely on.
While we watch reflective, rebellious Eddie get in bad with parents and teachers as a result of snotty Lambert’s machinations and try to leverage his way out by bonding with his grandparents, Gurney also shows us that both his parents’ marriage and Buffalo’s socioeconomic outlook are going through the post–World War II upheaval that will produce bitter consequences, commented on in other Gurney plays, by the end of the century. Narrated by Eddie, who constantly steps out of the action to fill in supplementary details, the play is layered like a set of Chinese boxes: the adolescent-rivalry story, the boy-growing-up story, the crumbling-family story, and finally the troubled-city story. And enclosing the whole thing is an aesthetic discussion on the means by which the theater tells such stories, a discussion triggered by the object at the center of the innermost box: an obscene drawing, done by Eddie in Latin class, that provokes both his trouble with Lambert and a series of exchanges on what constitutes art. Gurney uses the occasion to take affectionate comic sideswipes at both the movies of his childhood and the bare-stage theatrical techniques of Thornton Wilder, his predecessor in evoking—and critiquing—the old, stable, small-town America of neocon fantasies. (Gurney understands this quite well: One of Indian Blood‘s funnier conversations deals with the way members of a big-city elite misperceive their isolated social set as the equivalent of a small town.)
Nothing in Gurney’s play is heartrending or revelatory, but at the same time nothing in it seems false or egregiously manipulative. At worst, Eddie’s hindsight-ridden musings on the difference between theater and the movies seem a touch overinsistent. Like other recent Gurney plays, this one carries hints that he’s starting to feel that the nation has abandoned his chosen medium as well as his family’s folkways. Mark Lamos’s direction, though sometimes signaling that he longs for the kind of lavish, scenically detailed production that Gurney’s post-Wilder aesthetic eschews, catches the play’s unpressured tone elegantly. Everything is shown just clearly enough to make its point; nobody ever does too much or too little. Pamela Payton-Wright, an actress who normally specializes in emotionally heavy roles, is a twinkle-eyed grandma right out of a 1940s Paramount Christmas movie. Rebecca Luker, as Eddie’s discontented mom, gives a carefully hemmed-in picture of unhappiness. Even better is Jack Gilpin, as her conventional-minded spouse, who manages to suggest deeper passions without ever overflowing the character’s strictly demarcated bounds. John McMartin plays the grandfather’s odd mixture of pessimism and progressivism with easy grace, even covering elegantly when he goes up on his lines. Blackman makes an appealingly wistful prig. And Socarides, though his distinctly Greek American features make both the family lineage and the “Indian blood” story seem preposterous, carries off the demanding lead role with just the right blend of dreamy-eyed naïveté and adolescent feistiness.