LIVES OF RICH AND WASPISH IN ‘SCENES’
“Scenes From an American Life,'R. Gurney’s first full-length play, has its Los Angeles premiere Saturday at the Skylight (it played the South Coast Repertory in 1975). Written in 1970, it was the first of Gurney’s major comedic studies on the lives of the rich and WASP-ish, about whom Gurney says, “I hold an affection for, and anger with, the restrictions of their values.
“I wrote it at a time when I thought there was an aggressive, militaristic impulse in our country which was very threatening,” Gurney recalled in a telephone conversation from New York. “I was teaching at MIT at the time and saw how our position in Vietnam was affecting students. I also saw a connection between the decay of the old Protestant elite and the values that that elite had imposed on the country and its children, and were now being asserted by government.”
When you pick up a newspaper, it seems like old times--except for the silence of the young. On an aesthetic note, Gurney remembers the play as his first successful experiment in opening up the walls of the theater. “We live in such a diverse, vast country that, to me, confining people in a single stage space never seemed to work. This was the first time I asked actors to play multiple roles of young and old. It was my attempt to break through physical restrictions. There’s a lot of music. The piano acts as a kind of chorus, playing American music that defines time for us.”
Michael Arabian, who recently directed “Request Concert " at the Cast, directs here. He also sees parallels between now and 1970: “A lot of the scenes are relevant to the Reagan era, including an arms buildup, conglomerates swallowing up smaller companies, and an emphasis on wealth that divides the moneyed class from the middle and working classes. Gurney’s anticipation of Big Brother was a big thing then. That may not have come to pass, but I think the threat to our privacy is still very real.”
Before the word yuppie was coined, the ultimate yuppie musical presented itself--Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” which deals with a group of upwardly mobile Manhattan marrieds and a noncommittal bachelor named Bobby in their midst. Sheryl Donchey thinks that Bobby’s shyness wasn’t altogether a matter of indecision. Underneath, he knew what he wanted: Not someone’s niece from Ohio, but Peter, a married friend.
Donchey is an actress, a director and a choreographer, and is making efforts to coerce Sondheim into reconsidering “Company’s” ending, which is unlikely, since Sondheim is a slow worker and “Company” is scheduled for a Friday opening at the Broadway Playhouse in San Gabriel. Still, hope springs eternal in the theater more lavishly than in a lot of other places.
“I saw the original ‘Company’ in New York and was a little confused by its ending,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of reading on Sondheim and saw that he had an ending which showed Bobby going off with Peter, but then dropped it. If he’s willing to redo ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ at the La Jolla Playhouse, which he did last summer, maybe he’ll restore his original ending to ‘Company.’ Either way, we’ll go on. Except for a few dated words here and there, like caftan --nobody wears them anymore--'Company’ works perfectly in 1986.”
Janet Thomas’ “Newcomer” is this year’s Improvisational Theatre Project, the Mark Taper Forum’s educational program, which tours Southland schools annually. The play deals with a young Vietnamese refugee girl who now must come to grips with the confusing welter of nationalities, mores, images, and experiences of life in the United States, and receives little help from a Chinese American friend who wants to obliterate his (and her) ethnic roots. Peter Brosius, who as author or co-author had a hand in the ITP’s prior works, “School Talk” and “Family Album,” directs. The play opens for the public Saturday at Taper, Too.