To imagine an erotic encounter between Injun Joe from “Tom Sawyer” and Glinda the Good Witch from “The Wizard of Oz” is not a stretch for 16 year-old Eddie (Charles Socarides). It is, in fact, rather easy for him to let his mind wander during Latin class and proceed to draw the provocative picture of those two unlikely and, as he saw them, nude lovers. Ratted on by Lambert (Jeremy Blackman), his nerdy second cousin who attends the same class and whom Eddie takes a particular pleasure in taunting, he is severely reprimanded (“Sic semper pornography”) by the schoolmaster, Mr. Kenyon (Matthew Arkin).
Eddie’s behavior results in his being suspended from school for three weeks. It also results in a few relatively uneventful but auspicious days for Eddie amongst his well-to-do, closely-knit family in Buffalo, New York, Christmas, 1946. For many of us, Eddie’s encounters with his parents and grandparents, in which the legendary lore of his family’s Indian connection is facetiously threaded, reflect a remote and rarified existence, one that is marked by its overly functional as well as dysfunctional aspects.
“Indian Blood” is A.R. Gurney’s memory play of growing up in a privileged society and in a family where the older generations were quite visible, venerable, and made lasting impressions. Written with a generosity of spirit and told from a refreshingly unsophisticated perspective, this retreat into the past specifically commemorates Gurney’s father’s family. As noted in the program, Gurney has previously “tried to get into the heads of my mother’s family in a play called ‘Ancestral Voices.’” “Indian Blood” has been dramatized by Gurney with a lovingly articulated simplicity, and nicely directed by Mark Lamos with an eye for the play’s purposefully quaint pretensions.
Although the play begins with projections of vintage postcards of post-World War II Buffalo projected on a show curtain, the play is performed with only a minimal use of projections and a few props. Think Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” by way of “The Long Christmas Dinner,” invigorated by a slightly rebellious narrative that faintly suggests Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” Eight excellent actors, some doubling, one tripling, portray 12 characters.
Although Socarides, as Eddie, the play’s storyteller, doesn’t have the good fortune to be as eccentrically defined as the older generations, he is totally engaging without being overly solicitous for our affection. Standout performances abound and vie for our attention. What a pleasure it is see the wonderful Rebecca Luker in a non-singing role as Eddie’s refreshingly non-critical mother. Not quite true, as Luker sings Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” at the family Christmas gathering. She is particularly subtle in expressing her feelings and her grievances to her stiff-necked, unwittingly preoccupied and prejudiced husband, Harvey, as played with bankable waspishness by Jack Gilpin. Pamela Payton-Wright is wonderful as Eddie’s irrevocably spoiled and doted-upon grandmother, as is John McMartin, as Eddie’s grandfather, a man with a devilish twinkle in his eye and a dubious tale to be told.
Arkin uses some sly strokes to create Mr. Kenyon’s straight-laced attitude toward his unruly student and a slightly less straight countenance as the (Grand) Mama’s boy, Uncle Paul. Katherine McGrath has three characters, including the servants, to invest with affectionate aplomb. There is not much to love about that “squealer” Lambert, as played with an infuriating zeal by Blackman. His general nastiness finally provokes a rough and tumble fight with Eddie at the family’s Christmas Eve dinner (vigorously staged by B. H. Barry).
There may not be a significant dramatic arc in this civilized portrait of a family legend and of the legacy it leaves to the next generation. But the amusing conversations and confrontations between Eddie and his elders appear to be filling in parts of the larger mosaic that Gurney has been steadily creating.
A.R. Gurney’s interest in and focus on chronicling the experiences of the American WASP, that privileged society, in a canon of gin and tonic comedies that includes “The Dining Room” (1982) and “The Cocktail Hour” (1989) seemed to confirm that he is most at home in the northeast corridor of America. However, this acknowledged master of contemporary drama has also taken some daring departures from his oeuvre as with his 1998 one-act play “The Guest Lecturer,” which delved into the roots of classic ancient pre-Hellenic comedy prior to Aristophanes, and in his 1999 play, “Far East,” in which he took us 6,000 miles from his customary setting.
Aside from his most commercially successful and popular plays, “Sylvia” and “Love Letters,” Gurney has also been motivated to engage us with his humor-propelled political comedy, “Mrs. Farnsworth” (2004). With the premiere of “Indian Blood,” Gurney can be said to have come full circle, as he is once again as defined by his anthropological sociological explorations as he is by the play’s subject/point-of-view character. Some may find Gurney’s style a bit flimsy, but “Indian Blood” is, nevertheless, a charming play and a rewardingly nostalgic retreat back to Gurneyland. ***
“Indian Blood,” through Saturday, September 2, 59E59 Theater, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison avenues. $60. Call 212-279-4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com.
The key: **** Don’t miss; *** You won’t feel cheated; ** Maybe you should have stayed home; * Don’t blame us.