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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 10, 2000. All rights reserved.

Review: `Ancestral Voices’


It isn’t an overstatement to say that "Ancestral

Voices," now at the George Street Playhouse, is one of the best

plays of the year. That is if we permit what is essentially a dramatic

reading to be called a play. I do. Modestly enhanced by a pastoral

scene that is projected onto a grouping of empty picture frames (through

the artistry of designer Ted Simpson), five actors take their seats

in a row of elegant Victorian chairs behind lecterns placed on an

Oriental rug. They proceed to evoke and reveal a time, a place, a

society, a family and its members with canny wit and insight. Be assured

that they will keep you enthralled and amused for 90 minutes.

And it isn’t an overstatement to say that the author A. R. (Pete,

to his friends) Gurney (Jr.) is one of the masters of American contemporary

domestic drama. If Gurney began turning the suburban experience on

its head back in 1971 when his "Scenes From American Life"

opened at Lincoln Center, he has continued into the new millennium

to write plays that dramatize his hypothesis that WASPs are not as

boring as they appear. In the same way that a similar world was covered

in the 1930s and ’40s by such playwrights as S.N. Berman, Philip Barry,

and Robert E. Sherwood, Gurney has pursued his comically anthropological

investigation of upper class genteel society with such plays as "The

Dining Room" "The Cocktail Party," and "Later Life."

Some of his plays like "The Middle Ages," "The Perfect

Party," "Children," and "Love Letters" are gracefully

achieving classic status. If the George Street Playhouse has, in recent

seasons, provided its audiences with a taste of Gurney at his most

whimsical ("Sylvia") and his most macabre ("Darlene and

the Guest Lecturer"), "Ancestral Voices" relies on the

style and format of "Love Letters," a play in which actors

play their parts with script in hand and without benefit of stage

business. Whereas "Love Letters," is written for two actors,

"Ancestral Voices" has five. Its New York run, which began

in the fall of 1998 and ended on April 3 at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi

Newhouse Theater, was unique in that it played on Sunday and Monday

nights only, when the theater’s regular show was not being presented.

For the George Street Playhouse engagement, a somewhat unorthodox

casting arrangement is in place with a different quintet of actors

appearing for one week during the one-month run. That of course means

that the cast I’m reviewing is not the cast you will see. That is,

if you haven’t been there yet. In either case, David Saint’s unobtrusive

direction serves the play and its players.

It is not surprising that "Ancestral Voices" is set in the

1940s, in Buffalo, N.Y. (as was Gurney’s first play, "Scenes from

American Life"), the town where his father, a prominent and successful

businessman had once taken umbrage with his son for writing about

the private situations in which he ("Pete") grew up.

Well, with that background it is no wonder that Eddie, the fifth character

and narrator in "Ancestral Voices," has the ring of a young

Gurney. Except for the very end of the play when Eddie is a married

adult, the voice and perspective is that of a bright and curious lad

who ages from 8 to 12. Bittersweet charms pervade this performance-textured

concert reading, as young Eddie, appealingly read by Paul Rudd, guides

us through the tumultuous events that send his family into a tizzy.

That is, when Harvey (Jack Gilpin), his stiff-necked autocratic father

and Jane (Julie Hagerty), his flighty with efficiency society wife,

aren’t interrupting him with quarrels and petty annoyances of their


The main event is the divorce of Eddie’s grandmother (Frances Sternhagen)

from his grandfather (George Grizzard) so that she can marry his best

friend. Eddie, who is fond of his grandparents, is not at all happy

with the breakup. The boy’s failed attempts to "reconsile"

his beloved grandparents are humorously revealed through the noted

spelling deficiency in the budding young writer.

Eddie’s special bond with his grandmother is experienced

through a trip to the movies, where she perceives the film "Wuthering

Heights" as dramatizing her own life in some very strange and

illuminating ways. Eddie’s grandfather is an outdoorsman who introduces

his grandson to salmon fishing and the wonders of nature, hunting

and outdoor life. Roger, the grandfather’s best friend before he betrays

him, will soon be revealed as a temperamental philanderer. Both Grizzard,

who also reads Roger, and Sternhagen, who has lovely scene as Fanny,

the Southern woman who is unsuccessfully dating Eddie’s grandfather,

have the choice opportunities to affect charming personality changes.

As seen from Eddie’s point of view, the family dinners, weddings,

and special occasions may remind you of O’Neill’s "Ah, Wilderness:"

The memory of his slightly intoxicated grandmother trying to make

sense of her life; her being snubbed by Buffalo society at the Saturn

Club; the sad farewells to men of the family who went off to the war

that has become more than a shadowy menace.

Eddie’s growing ability as a writer becomes evident in his perceptive

and happy reminiscences. Yet it is through Gurney’s gift for dramatic

narrative and the actors’ gift for illuminating the characters so

skillfully (let us assume subsequent casts will be as marvelous),

that the changes that occur with America at war, within one American

family’s life, and in the once great city of Buffalo that we see go

from America’s sixth largest city to its 52nd largest city in a generation,

are as dramatic and as lively as you would wish any play to be.

— Simon Saltzman

Ancestral Voices, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick. $36-$22. 732-246-7717.

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