First produced in London in 1974, "Children" provided a glimpse of A.R. Gurney's world--and his talent--long before the playwright became famous.
Typical of Gurney, "Children"--now at Pacific Resident Theatre--slices cleanly but deeply into the repressions of well-off Northeastern WASPs, with plenty of funny, often mordant moments arising naturally from a quartet of sharply drawn characterizations.
Set in 1970 on a resort island off the Massachusetts coast, the only children seen onstage are, in fact, grown-ups: two of the three offspring of a wealthy widow (Judith Montgomery) who's now in her 60s. Barbara (Catherine Telford) is a recently divorced mother of two, more vulnerable than her caustic surface may indicate. Randy (Robert Lee Jacobs) is a coach at a prep school, and a fanatic for games in general, who has brought his wife Jane (Robin Becker) and their four kids to the family's longtime summer home.
Pokey, younger brother of Barbara and Randy, also shows up with his wife, Miriam, and their brood. But Pokey stands apart from the rest of the family. He hasn't seen them since the aftermath of his father's drowning death in this same beach-side area five years earlier. And he is, we hear, the one child who is often critical and never satisfied. We hear all this without seeing it, because Pokey is glimpsed only once, with his face hidden from view, at a moment near the end of the play. Miriam, a Jew among the goyim, is not seen at all.
This decision to keep the pivotal Pokey almost completely offstage presented a potential shoal to Gurney that he, for the most part, successfully navigated around. The journey might have been even smoother if the playwright had kept Pokey off the stage entirely, instead of presenting him for a moment in shadow. While the brief appearance adds an element of mystery, it also feels like a gimmick that doesn't quite pay off.
Still, the absence of Pokey throughout most of the play does serve to focus on the other characters--the ones whose voices might have been drowned out or ignored if Pokey had sounded off. Their quieter desperation is fascinating on its own terms. In an era that was full of talk of "the silent majority," Gurney chose to give the majority within this family a voice, albeit not a particularly political or an especially sympathetic one. Indeed, Gurney's attitude appears pointedly more sympathetic to Pokey than was John Cheever's stance toward the corresponding character in the 1946 short story, "Good-Bye, My Brother," that inspired "Children."
The tiny stage doesn't suggest the sweep of the family's holdings, though Victoria Profitt's set does much with its allotted space. Yet Joe Olivieri's staging of four masterful performances is exemplary. A warning for anyone who might be misled by the title: The play contains a brief moment of nudity.
* "Children," Pacific Resident Theatre, 707 Venice Blvd., Venice. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Aug. 15. $18-$20. (310) 822-8392. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.