Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Family Furniture by A.R. Gurney

Family Furniture is yet another A.R. Gurney play, premiered at Buffalo's Kavinoky Theatre, located just across the Peace Bridge at nearby D'Youville College. Gurney is one of America's most productive playwrights, and this time, his play has geographic resonance with Canadians, set on Lake Erie's Niagara shoreline during the 1950s. All these years, we have been exposed to affluent Americans who have purchased prime properties along Lake Erie from Fort Erie to Port Colborne, to conveniently summer in idyllic cottage fashion upon the lakefront, content to employ family furniture as basic furnishings, a metaphor for their patrician heritage.

Gurney gets all the place names correct, citing Prospect Point, Shaw in NOTL, Ridgeway and other Canadian entities, and what we have here essentially is the prosperous, well-connected country-club "Buffalo Canoe Club" types with successful businessmen jaunting back and forth across the Peace Bridge to downtown Buffalo offices while their women are engaged in philanthropic work for museums and the philharmonic.

Lisa Ludwig convincingly plays a restless Claire, the charming, busy, promiscuous wife and mother in a wealthy Buffalo clan, unfulfilled in seemingly a marriage of convenience and involved rather with a fellow tennis buff. The play begins with Claire's husband vainly trying to track her down at a NYC hotel where she has journeyed ostensibly to purchase slipcovers, but more importantly, for a quick fling with the aforementioned tennis chum.

The play centers on the undercurrent of ennui amidst this privileged class, a quintessential North American WASP entity, along with the implications for the children, who, like the furniture, are expected to uphold tradition. According to Tom Zindle who plays Russell the husband, that means that Italians are wise to remain in Italy and Jews, well, they are OK provided that they stay in their place. On opening night, Zindle often had trouble with his lines, seemingly uncomfortable in this role. Peter Palmisano directed, content with a minimalist set to highlight the troubled characterization.

An uneasy tone is established in the opening scene as Zindle expresses fear about his wife to his college-age son, Nick (P.J. Tighe). After all, it's past 11 pm, and having phoned Claire, she apparently hasn't returned to the hotel. Russell eventually opts for bed, while Nick and his sister, Peggy (Kathleen Denecke) reveal that the father (the tennis player) of a friend on the beach, also spent the night in New York City.

Amidst this "phony" Catcher in the Rye social scenario, deceivingly, the surface looks sound with Nick and Peggy themselves in unorthodox romances, Nick with a Jewish girl, and Betsy (Genevieve Lerner) with an Italian-American named Marco, while Russell and Claire maintain their gin-and-tonic country-club routine. And that's the problem with this play. There is no Holden Caulfield at the centre for us to care about to fight these forces. All of the characters are painfully tedious despite their incessant name droppings - of prestigious universities (Harvard and Yale), Shakespeare (the Hamlet analogy is a stretch) and myriad bon mots delivered in French.

Nick broods over his mother's betrayal, and at tennis, lashes out at the culprit, only to be coerced by mother to apologize for the sake of appearance. For the privileged set, "We know but we don't know," which reminds one of Jonathan Franzen's novel, Freedom, in which a daughter in the country club set is raped and the father, a lawyer, suggests that she simply forget it. Thus, adultery also is tolerated if it is discreet, but we must not acknowledge it. Rudeness in life including the tennis court is frowned upon.

Gurney is gifted, but I prefer how Salinger and Edward Albee explore this disintegrating social milieu. The seemingly trite phrase, "money can't buy happiness" is personified by Zindle's Russell, who sends his daughter to Europe to avoid her relationship here with Marco. Italians cut off from their roots, become "gangsters or politicians." Unfortunately, she returns pregnant by a lad from the moneyed class, and her fixer-dad suggests that he can remedy this awkward situation through social club friends with access to medical intervention - aka abortion. Of course, that term is never uttered. We know, but we don't know.

Eventually, Gurney disposes of the problematic tennis player by having him die after a stroke, but not before Claire visits and provides him with a last taste of his favourite soup. Yes, you guessed correctly. It's Vichyssoise, best served cold, and that's the problem with this play.

Family Furniture by A. R. Gurney. Performances for this limited engagement (January 9 - February 1, 2015) take place on Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $39.00 with discounts available to seniors, students, military, and groups. For tickets, call (716) 829-7668 or click the tab below. See:

Buffal Playwright A.R. Gurney   Family Furniture   Lisa Ludwig

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