Stage Struck Review

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Dignity and Nostalgia: Fine Cast at Whittier Community Theatre celebrate “The Dining Room”

The cast of "The Dining Room" at Whittier Community Theatre illustrates one use for that iconic part of the house. [Photo: Avis Photography]

The cast of “The Dining Room” at Whittier Community Theatre illustrates one use for that iconic part of the house. [Photo: Avis Photography]

Playwright A.R. Gurney’s best work has revolved around the upper-middle class New England of the early to mid-20th Century, either by placing his plays in that space, or among people reminiscent for that time and space. As such, his works become a window on an entire society, with its structures, standards, and mores, which has essentially evaporated in the intervening societal upheavals. Never is this more true than in “The Dining Room,” a set if interlaced vignettes revolving around that once-formal space in a more formal era.

Now finishing a short run at Whittier Community Theatre, “The Dining Room” offers a small group of 8 performers a chance to become a wide array of people, current and historical, inhabiting, reminiscing about, or even rediscovering the value of a home’s formal dining room. If this sounds rather silly, it isn’t. Instead, it is a window on a particular kind of intimacy, observed even in the breach.

Director Candy Beck has brought together a particularly skilled cast, and her near-choreography of their comings and goings makes the transitions from scene to scene and character to character both seamless and easy to follow. It’s a neat piece of direction, as well as a nod to the quality of the versatile performers.

The characters shift quickly, and Keith Bush, Michael Durack, Allison Hicks, Jay Miramontes, Jonah Snyder, Nancy Tyler, Randi Tahara and Veronique Merrill Warner produce a wild collection of family members, visiting professionals, servants and observers. Their interactions, which range from an aged father giving funeral instructions to his son to a little boy sad to hear that his favorite maid is going to stop working for the family, from a college student whose surprise visit home uncovers a family scandal to a couple of teenagers stealing from the liquor cabinet, create a communal portrait of a room and its purpose. The standout among this crowd of fine performers has to be Tahara, most particularly as the aged woman with dementia who doesn’t recognize her own house or her own sons, and as a woman watching her marriage fall apart.

The stories are often poignant, sometimes very funny, and always contain the kind of conversations which tend to happen in this specific room’s formal surroundings. Director Beck has also designed the set, which allows the flow of persons on and off stage, including a number of quick changes, and gives the feel of a large house’s formal dining room.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to see “The Dining Room,” do so. It provides a unique kind of window on a disappearing formality of finger bowls and live-in cooks, table manners and fine china, which is a part of Americana, even if out of reach for most of us. And it will give anyone a greater appreciation for that formal dining table which has been passed down the family. WCT have done themselves proud, making this particular production worth seeing.

What: “The Dining Room” When: through November 19, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general; $12 seniors, students, and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

The Fog of Nostalgia in “Life Could Be a Dream” at La Mirada

Nostalgia is in. Actually that’s not news. As the Boomers have aged into retirement, they have consistently reached back into what we see as a more innocent time. It’s an attractive, if somewhat two-dimensional vision of that period before Woodstock or Watergate, when songs spoke of blue moons and teen angels, and Mr. Sandman could bring a dream date.

The theatrical homage to this fondness for the Eisenhower years has taken root on stage, in such gems as “Forever Plaid,” which gleefully celebrated the period’s kitsch with a fictional “guy group”, or “The Marvelous Wondrettes” whose earnest high school girl group experiences prom night fame, then reflects upon it from their actual adult lives. Both of these are sweet, still understanding the boundaries of a period seen only through its rather rose colored popular tunes.

The creator of “The Marvelous Wondrettes,” Roger Bean, has a second venture into this realm with “Life Could Be a Dream,” now at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, courtesy of McCoy Rigby Entertainment. Although it has more plot than either of the above, it suffers from a split personality. Well performed, its salute to late 50s music cannot figure out if it’s a send-up of earnest amateur singing groups, with its obligatory caricatures, or an earnest love story.

Denny the post-high school loafer (Daniel Tatar), Eugene the dorky and uncoordinated geek (Jim Holdridge) and Wally the minister’s kid (Ryan Castellino), all of them refugees from high school glee club, decide to organize, rehearse and compete as a group to win a recording contract through a local radio station. They get sponsorship from an auto repair shop, represented by the owner’s daughter Lois (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Skip, the mechanic she brings along who classes up the boys’ act (Doug Carpenter).

There’s a lot of singing of familiar tunes as they rehearse, and as a relationship simmers between Lois and Skip, who is apparently forbidden fruit for a business owner’s daughter. When they are singing in dream sequences, or even when dealing with the more serious side of the Skip-Lois thing, everyone is profoundly professional. When they are acting in the guise of the guy group trying to get ahead, they are comically ill equipped for success. The division leaves one unconnected to the characters, as there is no way for them to consistently be one thing or another.

The talented, game cast sings very well – a delight when dealing with the tight harmony of that era. Their movements remind one quickly of the innate silliness of the choreographed groups of the period. Still, there are moments when traditionally male songs (even if originally sung in falsetto) are handed to Lois, and one trips on one’s nostalgia. A girl doesn’t sing “Only You,” any more than a girl sings “Lonely Teardrops.” The premise of these things is to keep sacred the arrangements and settings of these classic songs. It is a mild violation to skew things that far.

Particular nods go to Holdridge and Castellino, who play their stereotypes to the hilt. If only the consistency issues kept one from losing interest in them. By the predictable ending one wishes that “Life Could Be a Dream” had settled for being a really cool, costumed concert instead of creating plots that don’t intertwine well.

What: “Life Could Be a Dream” When: Through November 20, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $35 – $50 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

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