One of these days I’m going to get my act together and start a game show for theater people. The contests will include matching lines and props to the appropriate play, knowing the sexual peccadilloes of legendary performers, and what I call the “Picture This” round: Contestants are shown slides of sets and must guess what play they’re from. (Please — I need something to occupy my mind during the first 15 minutes of a show, when the playwright is laboriously unloading the exposition.)
An example would be, say, a dirt road and a bare tree: Waiting for Godot of course. A 1960s living room is some Neil Simon gem; a table and chairs in a suburban kitchen is, naturally, a play by a new writer; and anything with wainscoting would have to be something from that purveyor of WASP angst, A.R. Gurney.
So walking into the Red Barn Theater and coming smack up against an extremely handsome den replete with yards and yards of wainscoting … well, the only thing to say is, “Hello, A.R.”
The set in question, beautifully designed by Pat Van Eman, belongs to Gurney’s The Perfect Party. As usual, it concerns the moneyed elite and their realization that the genteel world for which they were groomed has disappeared. I like Gurney a lot; his writing is clever and bright, the characters wry and intelligent, and the undercurrent of melancholy compelling.
The Perfect Party is all of that, but also something of a departure. The lead character, Tony, has decided to throw “the perfect party” and is banking his reputation, happiness and, indeed, his future on its success. Moreover, Gurney has written it as a comedy of manners … a specifically American version. This American playwright experiments with a highly arch tone, exceedingly heightened dialogue and studied posing. Several references to Oscar Wilde alert the audience that what we’re seeing is, in a sense, a Wildean twist on a Gurney play. Tony’s maniacal pursuit of the trivial, alongside the aphorisms and epigrams of stylized American vernacular commenting on the “American character,” makes Perfect Party certainly one of Gurney’s most interesting plays.
I am, however, of two minds about the play’s end, when Gurney shoots past this conceit and moves into allegory. The party itself turns into a metaphor for America; here Tony’s desire to force perfection on his guests becomes America’s history of smothering the rest of the world with our culture and politics. His intent may be noble (in Tony’s mind he just wants people to have “the best”), but it remains an act of patriarchal imperialism. The evening is rescued when Tony’s wife allows the party to “be” whatever it wants to be. All of this is very interesting, yet feels a bit foreign alongside the preceding act-and-a-half.
In Gurney’s defense, some of that feeling may be the doing of this slightly underdeveloped Red Barn production. In their defense, let me say emphatically that this cast, directed by Dennis Palko, is a very talented group who just haven’t gone far enough. Bob Wiltman, Carol Wiltman, Dee Panza, Harley Allen and Marcia Rhea do a great job playing the comedy (the audience gave them a standing ovation) — but they miss the “comedy of manners.” The overarching stylization of Gurney’s script — possibly the very artifice that holds the show together — hasn’t quite been translated to the stage.
But, again, while this production may not be everything Gurney intended, it certainly turned out to be what the audience wanted.
The Perfect Party continues through July 8. Red Barn Theater, 3101 McCully Road, Allison Park. 412-487-4390