The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 47.0°F | Light Rain

The Middle Ages examines the American dream

THE MIDDLE AGES

Written by A. R. Gurney.

Directed by Michael Friedhoff '90

Starring Jonathan B. Amsterdam G,

Jennifer L. Duncan '92, Arthur H.

Roberts '93 and Joanna E. Stone '92.

Rehearsal Room A, Kresge Auditorium.

Dec. 12-15, 8 pm.

By BRIAN ROSENBERG

REHEARSAL ROOM A HAS A certain out-of-the-way charm to it. The room is rather austere, and the oddly-canted roof creates strange acoustics. It's not the kind of place you'd plunk down $20 to get into. Fortunately, you don't have to. The Middle Ages is free, but that's the least of the reasons to go see it.

Ages, like much of Gurney's work, confronts the self-occupied banality of WASP life in America's burgeoning postwar suburbs. Their social lives and most of their energies are focused on the neighborhood's private club, and the play takes place there, in a room that is at once on the club's fringe and at its very core. The play's characters enter the room only as an escape from the hubbub of club parties, yet in it resides the club's most cherished possession: the mixed doubles tennis cup won in 1933 by current patriarch Charles Rusher (Jonathan Amsterdam) and his late wife, Helen.

Into this arena marches Barney Rusher, Charles' eldest son and something of a troublemaker. Archie Roberts brings a confident swagger to the role that many will remember from his stewardship of the first Wednesday Night Live event. His comfort on stage is refreshing: At one point Roberts, leaving the trophy room by the window, knocked over a shutter, but hastily added a comment to the middle of his lines.

The audience grows up with Barney, watching as he brings embarrassment after disappointment heaped upon disgrace to his father, all in his quest to win the love of Eleanor Gilbert (Jennifer Duncan). Eleanor and her overbearing mother Myra (Joanna Stone) have recently moved into the area and are now seeking higher social strata. Myra tempts her reticent daughter out into the social arena with the stereotypical fantasy of attracting and marrying a hardworking, intelligent man -- who turns out to be Barney's younger brother, Bill -- and raising children together. Despite her mother's nagging, Eleanor remains drawn to Barney's vibrance and his rejection of the superficiality surrounding him. Duncan's portrayal of Eleanor is competent but uninspiring, and her face remains oddly flat at times of great emotional turmoil.

The interaction between Amsterdam and Stone brings out the best of each actor. A taut scene in the first act is the most striking example: Charles and Myra burst in on a stark naked Barney and a horrified Eleanor. Myra sends Eleanor packing, Charles tersely reprimands Barney, and the two are left to chat. Before they or the audience realizes, they are locked in the polite and stilted dance of adult courtship. Each knows the game so well that they respond before the other has finished. The exchange is mesmerizing.

The set design and lighting are austere, leaving one's mind free to appreciate the adept characterizations. Gurney's writing also offers plenty of food for thought, including several jokes that take a few seconds to digest fully.

Barney steers his entire life against the tide of his surroundings, growing up to become a bisexual distributor of pornography with lovers in New York and San Francisco. Eleanor raises three children to productive adult lives. Each tries desperately to achieve the happiness that could have been, and while their struggle is not uplifting, it is quite entertaining.