Gurney and Dudzick
by Anthony Chase
This week is an active week for Buffalo playwrights. While Tom Dudzick’s latest play, Miracle on South Division Street, is playing at the Kavinoky Theatre, A. R. Gurney, author of such plays as The Dining Room, The Cocktail Hour, and Sylvia, has opened a new play at The Flea Theater in New York City. Gurney has developed a close relationship with this Tribeca company which, since 2003, has presented the world premiere of his plays O Jerusalem, Mrs. Farnsworth, Screenplay, Post Mortem, A Light Lunch, Office Hours, and Heresy.
The new work, called Family Furniture, features themes familiar to fans of Gurney: An affluent Buffalo family during the early 1950s is having a discreet family crisis against the backdrop of a city in decline. Family values and a sense of place endure as constants in this devolving world. As in several Gurney plays, the complication that drives the action is a marital infidelity.
This is an elegant and provocative play. The remarkable performance of Carolyn McCormick in the role of the mother is at the heart of Family Furniture. Ms. McCormick, familiar to television audiences as Dr. Elizabeth Olivet in Law and Order, similarly lent her talent and charisma to the Primary Stages production of Gurney’s Black Tie back in 2011.
Gurney follows the family reactions to increasingly probable infidelity of McCormick’s character without judgment or hysteria. Indeed, as other family events develop with increasing urgency during this one remote summer on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie, a quiet marital indiscretion recedes into the realm of the inconsequential.
Specifically, the son and daughter develop serious relationships with people from other cultural backgrounds, which serve to force issues in unexpected ways. The son’s relationship with a Jewish girl turns out to be less consequential than his discovery of his mother’s relationship; the daughter’s relationship with a Princeton man proves to be more problematic than her attraction to a boy from Buffalo’s Italian West Side. Nothing plays out the way the characters expect.
What remains when the chips have fallen is a sense of family history and responsibility, eloquently evoked by McCormick as she graciously exits to take the family to dinner at the Saturn Club—family intact, dignity maintained.
Family Furniture presents some challenges to the young actors in the company who may not be familiar with a social set that narrates life while living it, in the manner of old-time Buffalonians. This is a world in which major global events serve as reference points for family events: how we lived during World War I; our role in building the Erie Canal; what we did to elect Eisenhower, and so forth. In a Gurney play, these expository sequences are essential to the theme. The titular family furniture—the artifacts of our ancestral past—connect us to the history that formed us and to the future for which we are responsible.
The play is a sophisticated and powerful addition to the Gurney canon.
Fascinatingly, Miracle on South Division Street, the new Tom Dudzick play now being performed at Buffalo’s Kavinoky Theatre, hits on many of the same themes as Gurney’s play. In contrast to Gurney’s patrician city leaders, here we meet a working-class family from Buffalo’s Polish East Side also coping with increasing diversity and a declining economy in Buffalo, and also dealing with the secrets surrounding a family infidelity.
The family in this play has founded its sense of purpose and self-worth on a family history that turns out to be a total fiction. Specifically, the family all believe that the Virgin Mary appeared to Grandpa in his barber shop, shortly after World War II. Ever since, they’ve been caring for a large shrine to the Blessed Mother outside their East Side home.
The plot kicks in when granddaughter Ruth reveals that Grandma has told her a different version of events.
Whereas Gurney’s play is driven by unfolding events, leading up to a sudden reversal, Dudzick allows his tale to unwind through old-fashioned storytelling. Indeed, Miracle on South Division Street is structured like an elaborate joke. As the daughter who holds the family secret begins to reveal more and more, her mother and siblings simply brace themselves for what is coming next.
With action the essence of drama, this formula—all telling, little showing—would seem to be a recipe for theatrical disaster, and yet, Dudzick, who has also taken on directorial duties at the Kavinoky, deftly maneuvers his characters through their shifting situation to forge an evening that is entirely endearing, uplifting, and satisfying. He accomplishes this largely because an evening of “telling” forces his characters into action. From the moment when the family races to the base of the family shrine, their lives will never be the same.
The Kavinoky production is populated with a marvelously appealing cast. Ellen Horst is first rate as the matriarch, Clara, the character who unexpectedly travels the farthest journey. Bonnie Jean Taylor is delightful as instigator Ruth. Charmagne Chi scores huge laughs as conventional and hard-nosed daughter Beverly—her “Queen of Heaven” speech is hilarious. Ben Puglisi imbues the evening with sheer joy as Jimmy, the character with the most to gain from the unraveling of this family’s history.
As in Gurney’s play, which ends with mother en route to the Saturn Club for an evening of familial renewal, Miracle on South Division Street also ends with mother engaged in a revealing action. I won’t reveal all, but if Gurney called his play Family Furniture, Dudzick could have called his Family Recipes.
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