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A Glut of Gurney

The Old Boy is too familiar to be fascinating

I don't mean to sound like a crank, but Houston theater companies, come on. Enough with A.R. Gurney already! Some half-dozen Gurney plays have been produced in the past year or two, the infernal Love Letters seemingly a half-dozen times itself. If Houston hadn't been entertaining Gurney lately, it might be fun to go to The Cocktail Party or sit at The Dining Room. But Gurney's interchangeable, melancholic, usually male WASPs -- with formidable families, distinguished careers, marriage problems, mid-life crises and gin, lots of gin -- have been so popular around here you'd think they ran with the country club set. And now Actors Theatre of Houston is showing off The Old Boy. Mixing a metaphor, there's nothing new under this favorite son.

It's not simply the boredom of repetition that gets to me about Gurney done locally. Or the implication that, in setting their seasons, theater companies are oblivious to, or unconcerned with, what others are doing. More disturbing implications about experiencing Gurney time and again -- a sort of theatrical ethnocentrism -- have to do with Gurney as a playwright. While readers are at a certain remove from, say, John Cheever's work -- which also gets at white, well-to-do Northeastern manhood -- because it's principally in short story form, with Gurney we see his brand -- class -- of anti-hero right before our eyes. And, in Houston, theater company after theater company promulgates his vision not simply by doggedly mounting his shows, but by following party-line casting. If we are to be inundated with Gurney, why not occasionally make characters into minorities? Why always have men take the lead? Why not make a lover homosexual? As things stand, I wonder about the frequent "privilege" of going to Gurney plays in Houston. Who are these productions for anyway? Who's being privileged?

"No one likes WASPs anymore," front man Bud tells Sam, a State Department under-secretary with gubernatorial aspirations who's returned to his prep school determined to give the commencement address that's at the heart of The Old Boy. But Gurney does nothing with his self-conscious swipe; the play is all about a fair-haired boy gone gray in his WASP's nest. Of course, the subject matter in itself is not damnable. But how it's brought to life is.

Though Sam ostensibly honors his pedigree vis-à-vis the graduation speech, in truth he's a lost soul, returning to his source to find himself. When Dexter, Sam's old teacher cleric, tells him that Perry, his former schoolmate with whom he long since lost touch, has died; that Perry's mother, Harriet, and widow, Alison, are attending commencement to announce a significant memorial gift in Perry's honor; and that they would like him to include Perry in his remarks, Sam is further burdened. It seems that Perry was gay and succumbed to AIDS.

Bud, ambitious and worried how an appearance at an elitist school might hurt his candidate's campaign, threatens to quit if Sam agrees to make mention of Perry. Harriet, a homophobe, wants Sam to edit his comments. Alison, Sam's old school flame, also has an agenda.

Yet there's little question about whether Sam will actually make the speech, which is too trite to be the character-transforming climax Gurney intends. Indeed, character development is limited to audience-necessary exposition about backgrounds, lifestyles and what have you that the characters already know about each other or would never reveal in the convenient manner Gurney has them speak. Gurney's attempts at insight, often concocting metaphors out of tennis and "La Forza del Destino," are sophomoric.

Most problematic are the prep school flashbacks between Sam and Perry that are supposed to give the play its poignancy. Sketchy and arbitrary, they neither probe the characters' psyches nor expose anything about the system they're part of. For all Gurney's good intentions, Perry -- what with liking opera, being seduced by an older man and praying to God to be cleansed of "wickedness" -- is nothing if not a stereotype. And while Harriet is written into the flashbacks, Alison, for no apparent reason, isn't: her part in Sam's and Perry's lives as the girl waitress turned suffering society woman is reduced to cliched reminiscences. That Sam, having served as Perry's mentor in a bonding rite unique to prep schools, tragically steers him wrong is an article of faith that Gurney pleads, not dramatizes.

At Actors Theatre of Houston, director Brandon Smith unduly inflates the proceedings. Scenes are too slow and drag on; the transitions to the crucial flashbacks are overblown. After one pre-curtain confrontation, Sam sits in front of a dramatically lit bay window and contemplates the task ahead of him as an Elton John (Elton John?!) ballad accompanies his thoughts. Needlessly feeling he must use all of the unique duplex-confines of the theater, Smith asks his actors to stand on a staircase here, pantomime action in an obscure corner there; the spacing is off, going out of bounds at times and feeling claustrophobic at others.

Kirk Sisco certainly resembles the stuff of gubernatorial material: silver tresses, lanky body and dignified good looks with a youthful air. He's the type of actor we like as soon as he walks into a room, which suits a politician. He also nicely modulates his anguish. But more than a third of his role is as a bounding prep schooler in various emotional situations, and merely softening his voice isn't enough to create any sense of a younger, burgeoning character.

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