A.R. Gurney’s summery comedy “Labor Day” boasts its share of chuckles. The banter is light and breezy, the acting is tidy and the writing slick, and yet it’s a curiously hollow affair.
The playwright is in familiar territory. He has revived the semi-autobiographical dramatist introduced a decade ago in “The Cocktail Hour.” John, acted with feisty charm by Josef Sommer, is a successful playwright (but never produced on Broadway) who, following a bout with cancer that’s now in remission, has completed a family drama in which the characters come a bit too close to home.
During a Labor Day family celebration at the Connecticut farm, Joe is visited by an aggressive young director-writer, Dennis (Brooks Ashmanskas), who announces considerable interest in the new play by Seattle Rep for production on their mainstage. The Shubert Organization is also tempted, with an eye on Broadway, and Robert Redford would consider a screenplay, if a human rights issue could be added.
Dennis, suggesting a revised ending and several changes that amount to a complete rewrite, makes several futile attempts to get Joe alone long enough to confer. The playwright suffers a series of interruptions by his wife of 35 years , Ellen (Joyce Van Patten), daughter Ginny (Veanne Cox) and son Ralph (James Colby), who express equal curiosity about how they are portrayed in Joe’s play.
Ginny, the “family voice” with political ambitions, engages in sibling rivalry with environmentalist Ralph over the use of the tennis courts. Ralph, a lumbering, doltish sports fan, compares his father’s success average as a playwright with baseball statistics, and, upon discovering that Dennis is gay, makes the most naive and silly observations.
Actually, there seems to be a cast of thousands offstage, and much of the second act is devoted to their concerns. The grandchildren are squealing and splashing in the pool, the au pair gets poison ivy and is rushed off to a local drugstore, and Joe’s married daughter Mandy appears to be having an affair with a twice-wed garage mechanic. It seems that another son has been arrested and is in jail. None of these characters appear, but they soon become the focus of interest.
Under Jack O’Brien’s smooth guidance, Van Patten targets her flinty barbs with precision marksmanship, Cox is a spunky contributor and Ashmanskas as the bemused observer and frustrated visitor is exactly right.
The playwright’s studio is a converted chicken coop, comfortably designed by Ralph Funicello with theatrical posters, a wicker chaise lounge and a generous assortment of collectible roosters. The relaxed weekend costumes by Michael Krass seem suitable for a holiday barbecue.