The Keen Company’s revival of A.R. Gurney’s 1982 drama “The Dining Room” is pleasantly forgettable, just like the play itself. While neither script nor production quite leaps from sturdiness to excellence, both have some exquisite moments and come off with ease. And really, no show should be penalized for crafting light entertainment with a twist of artistry.
Gurney’s writing is elegant, and his simple symbolism, though instantly digestible, at least provides some ideas worth considering. The play is an anthology of unrelated vignettes — each featuring its own family of troubled northeastern WASPs — yet every scene unfolds around the same dining room table. Hard and unmoving, the furniture evokes the emotional and social rituals that organize this culture’s world.
However, Gurney merely defines aspects of WASP culture; he doesn’t explore them. Though finely detailed, his scenes skirt the cosmic largeness of Thornton Wilder’s similarly structured “The Long Christmas Dinner,” which Gurney has cited as an inspiration.
With no context beyond their mansion walls, the characters almost become scientific specimens. Unless one comes from a home like theirs, it’s easy to watch them as if they were creatures under glass.
Even from a distance, however, some behaviors are poignant. Gurney has a particular knack for words that talk around real feelings, such as when a father (Dan Daily) tells his adult son (Timothy McCracken) how he wants his funeral arranged. With the details he adds to his obituary and the music he requests for his service, the father hints at the hope that he will be fondly remembered, the indirectness making his longing more acute.
Daily sews his own bright thread into the part. His specificity and timing vivify all his characters, including a small boy who’s heartbroken that his nanny is leaving to start her own family and a grandfather bemused that his grandson wants money.
Daily makes most of his co-stars seem wan. His supple face only highlights how Samantha Soule glues the same conciliatory smile onto most of the women she plays. And his blustering grandfather proves that Mark J. Sullivan’s patriarchal characters have more stiffness than authority.
Ann McDonough, though, creates nothing but strong impressions. A veteran of the play’s premiere production at Playwrights Horizons, she gives complete life to each role, using rapid-fire blinking to announce a little girl’s excitement or the quick brush of a tabletop to describe a woman’s lust for the carpenter she has hired to fix it. Such gestures give this gossamer production some heft.