28 June 2015

'What I Did Last Summer'


For A. R. Gurney’s second Residency One production, the Signature Theatre Company is presenting a revival of his 1983 play, What I Did Last Summer.  (Gurney’s first Signature production was The Wayside Motor Inn, on which I reported on ROT on 1 October 2014.  A third, new play, Love and Money, is scheduled for this August.)  The play began previews on the Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row on 28 April and closed on 7 June.  The production opened to the press on 17 May; I caught the show on the evening of 5 June. 

What I Did Last Summer, a largely autobiographical tale, has been a moderately popular script for Gurney, especially in colleges and high schools.  (In an interview, the playwright confessed that the play “always has been a secret favorite of mine; it’s like a child that had a very difficult upbringing, so I have particular fondness for it.”)  It premièred in February 1983 at Manhattan’s Circle Repertory Company—for a run of only 37 performances.  A 2003 revival was staged in Houston and Retro Productions mounted one in 2007 in New York City.  It’s popularity over the years seems to have come from a couple of attributes: a small cast, the prevalence of mostly young characters from 14 to 19, a very simple unit set, and only as much tech as a theater can muster.  (There was a lone drummer stage right in the Signature revival, but that seemed dispensable.)  Even the costumes, as we’ll see, are undemanding: rather standard summer wear (ca. 1945) that even the smallest of troupes can manage on a limited budget.  The play’s also heavily nostalgic for the time, place, and values of Gurney’s youth, the World War II home front, when the notion of the “teenager” was pretty much invented.  What’s not to love, right?

Well, Gurney, who was only 14 himself at the time the play takes place (and 52 when it premièred), has written a two-hour, two-act snapshot of life at the end of the war (Japan’s surrender is announced near the end of act two) in a summer resort for “the leisure class,” as one of the characters puts it.  The picture’s fully developed and sharp enough, but the figures and scenery in it are meaningful mostly to those who were there.  It’s also a pretty conventional shot—the one nearly every family takes on vacation.  I have some just like it—and you probably do, too. 

As for the self-portrait . . . well, it’s not terribly revealing, either.  First of all, the direction in which it’s going to develop, like watching a Polaroid become visible before your eyes, is pretty obvious fairly early.  Then, in the end, we get an assertion from the Gurney-manqué character that he becomes a playwright (“I wrote this play,” he tells us), but there’s no actual evidence that we’ve witnessed the birth of an artist. 

(In a curious coincidence, I saw my last play at Signature this season at the matinee the next afternoon.  It was Athol Fugard’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek—a report on ROT will be coming soon—which shares some superficial aspects with Summer.  In both plays, a young boy—14 in the Gurney, 11 in the Fugard—is fundamentally changed by an encounter with an artist teacher who’s a kind of outsider.  The two boys grow up to be men who affect others: in the Gurney, he becomes . . . well, Gurney, the successful playwright; in the Fugard, he becomes a teacher.  The change and subsequent upheaval is more dramatic in the Fugard—it’s tied in with the end of apartheid—and we see what the boy becomes as a man.)

Okay, I guess I better get to the play itself so you’ll know what I’ve been talking about.  As I said, What I Did Last Summer is set in the summer of 1945.  The Higgins family from Buffalo (Gurney’s own hometown)—mom Grace, 19-year-old daughter Elsie, and 14-year-old son Charlie—are spending the season at a summer house on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie, a colony of mostly American well-to-do; their husband and father is fighting in the Pacific.   Looking for a summer job, Charlie, in the incipient stages of teenage rebellion, takes a job doing chores for the Pig Woman (so-called because her cabin used to be a sty), Anna Trumbull, a free-thinking, proto-hippie-ish sometime art teacher.

Charlie’s in a sort of puppyish competition with Ted, a Canadian townie who mows lawns, does yardwork, drives, and, at 16, is old enough to ride the nearby rollercoaster.  The two shock the sensitivities of the conventional WASP community, especially sister Elsie, by stuffing rocks in the fronts of their swim trunks, going skinny-dipping in broad daylight, and mooning the women and kids on the shore.  Charlie also has an innocent crush on Bonny, another summer resident his age, who returns his affections but tries to be fair to Ted (who wants to drive her to the rollercoaster where he’s told his friend, the attendant, that Bonny’s his “girl” so he’ll let the underage teen onto the ride).  This little side story precipitates the play’s climax when Charlie takes Bonny out in Anna’s old Reo, which he’s gotten to run for her, and crashes it when the brakes fail.  (To show how squeaky-clean Gurney’s memory of all this is, the accident isn’t Charlie’s fault—it was a mechanical mishap—and he didn’t steal the car—Anna let him drive it even though he doesn’t have a license yet.  Further, no one is seriously hurt; Charlie wears a temporary neck brace for the rest of the play.)

Anna, once a member of the “upper crust,” owns to being “of mixed blood” (she’s part Native American) and was the mistress of a prominent doctor, but she’s now lost both her money and her regard for the conventions of middle-class decorum.  Sensing a “potential” in Charlie, Anna puts him to work around her farm in the mornings and tries to teach him art—and metaphysical life lessons along the way—in the afternoons.  (Gurney’s acknowledged that not only was there a real Anna in his youth—a woman who remained a friend well into his adulthood—but that the scenes with the character “are pretty much verbatim what she taught me.”)  She exposes Charlie to vaguely radical and quasi-socialistic ideas about which his mother and sister become concerned (even though they’re hardly “dangerous,” as Anna’s been labeled by the American summer residents).  
Charlie’s increasing independence of mind impels Grace, who herself had a history with Anna before she married Charlie and Elsie’s father 20 years earlier (and which seems a bit contrived), to write her husband for advice.  He orders her to send Charlie away to boarding school to straighten him out—just as he says the experience did for him.   Anna’s influence and Grace’s decision eventually persuade Charlie to reject the idea of going back to school at all in favor of staying on Grace’s farm—he’ll sleep in the barn!—and a family crisis ensues and a showdown between Anna and Grace looms.  The anti-climactic meeting, which raises more questions than it resolves, is inconclusive but the Higginses return to Buffalo when the summer ends to prepare for Father to return home now that Japan has surrendered.  Before driving out of town, however, Charlie makes Elsie stop the car and he has a farewell with Anna—whom we suspect he’ll never see again (unlike Gurney and Anna’s real-life counterpart) as she’s being forced to move in with family elsewhere.  In the end, we’re led to sense that this summer has stimulated a self-awareness in Charlie that will shape the man he’s destined to become—a writer and, perhaps, a playwright.  (He acknowledges at the end that he’s written “this play.”)

The play itself is less impactful than I feel either Gurney or director Jim Simpson and producer James Houghton seem to think it is.  The story’s less compelling than it’s played up to be and the point Gurney appears to be making is less revelatory than a 2-hour play would suggest it ought to be or that Gurney thinks it is.  (As I wrote in my report on The Wayside Motor Inn, “I should probably confess here that I’ve never been a great fan of Gurney’s plays.  I just find them unengaging . . . .”  My limited experience with Gurney as a writer makes me feel that he’s something of a lightweight—more than I’d expect for someone who’s been around for 50 years.)  Anna’s far from a threatening figure—she’s no predator, just a kook—and her ideas would only seem radical to a member of the John Birch Society.  Charlie’s friendship with her is more comical and oddly sweet than fraught—she’s more Auntie Mame in hippie drag than Mephistopheles after Charlie’s soul—and his terrifying rebellion is no more than using the kind of vulgar language we take for granted today, even from 14-year-olds (it’d be PG-rated in a movie today), and refusing to go to a posh party at another summer resident’s house.  As for the final transformation . . . well, let’s just say that What I Did Last Summer isn’t Summer of ’42.  Nor is it Brighton Beach Memoirs, as Charlie demonstrates, at least during the play, no discernable talent at any kind of art; all his efforts under Anna’s tutelage (including an attempt at macramé) are abject failures.

Much of this was the source of the critical dismissal Summer got in 1983 (which may have accounted for its brief run of 15 days).  Signature director Simpson, founder of the Flea Theater in downtown Manhattan—he retires shortly—and a longtime collaborator of Gurney’s, has endeavored to paper over the script's obvious weaknesses with production, and he comes close to succeeding.  He’s devised a series of projections (which reviews of the Circle Rep’s mounting don’t mention, so I assume they weren’t used) of parts of the script being typed on a manual machine, accompanied by the sound of clicking keys.  The text of the projections (designed by John Narun) may be stage directions—which the actors actually refer to on the back wall of the set before executing them—or bits of dialogue.  When Charlie tells us he’s written the play, we realize that this is supposed to be the adult author typing the script.  It’s sort of Brechtian-lite—and more of a distraction than a theatrical enhancement, I found.

To go along with the projected text, Gurney includes presentational asides to the audience, some of which are minor exposition (Bonny has a speech about the dangerous thrill of the rollercoaster she’s legally too young to ride), but most, especially at the outset, are each major character—the three Higginses—turning to the audience and proclaiming that the play is about him or her.  This device didn’t seem to go anywhere, either dramatically (it’s in the last of these that we learn that Charlie is the play’s author, but that’s really the most we get) or theatrically.  It interrupts the flow of the play without providing anything revealing and Simpson didn’t come up with a technique to make better use of the device.  The rest of the performance is essentially representational Realism.

In another touch of Brecht, there’s also that solo drummer—no band, just percussion—who accompanies the dialogue to establish or emphasize the rhythm of the characters’ speech.  Performed by Dan Weiner, who also provides some sound effects like the slam of a car door and the ping of shelled peas hitting a pail as well as few rim-shots, this is also something I think has been added since the ’83 début (no mention again in published reviews) and I’m not sure what Simpson wanted it to accomplish.  It may have something to do with the acting style the director seems to have devised for Signature’s Summer, which I found a little mannered, especially among the actors playing the teens.  The actors—who are all young adults, not children—moved in a way that made them look choreographed and spoke in odd bursts of words as if they were doing cartoon adolescents.  It was a common characteristic, so I assume it was Simpson’s selection, not the actors’. 

I got the impression that Simpson wasn’t sure if the play was a form of straight Realism (as I think it is) or something like impressionistic Symbolism.  (Those interludes of direct address may have been a source of his confusion.)  It was probably Simpson’s way of diverting attention from the deficiencies of Gurney’s script, but it only partially worked.  (When Signature artistic director Houghton proposed both Wayside Motor Inn and What I Did Last Summer for Gurney’s residency, the playwright had his doubts that “those plays would quite stand up.”)  The near-eccentric acting style, the percussive accompaniment, the Brechtian projections, however, couldn’t cover the klutzy dialogue, sketchy characters, and flimsy drama. 

If I accept that the mannered acting was the responsibility of the director, I have to say that the cast executed their jobs well, despite the impediments supplied by Gurney and Simpson.  Noah Galvin (who bears a passing resemblance to a teenaged Gurney, as it happens) as Charlie was the most affected by the performance style; it made him seem a little fey.  (I also think Galvin, who’s only about 21 now and has been playing teens since he was one, has gotten in the habit of playing “cute,” an actor phenomenon I’ve encountered before in young performers who started out a child actors.)

The most pervasive problem in the performance was the relationship between Charlie and Anna.  As played by Galvin and Kristine Nielsen, there didn’t seem to be much passion in the pairing.  It was as if they came together merely to piss Grace off, not so much because they each had anything they needed to accomplish.  Much of this is (lacking) in Gurney’s writing, to be sure, and director Simpson didn’t do enough to build up the central relationship that should have been the core of this coming-of-age story, but the acting in general was so superficial that Galvin and Nielsen must take considerable responsibility for the hole in the middle of Signature’s Summer.  As Elsie, Izzie Steele (who replaced Kate McGonigle on 2 June) is no more than an annoying, self-centered older sister, exasperated by the very existence of her little brother.  Carolyn McCormick’s Grace is mostly a hovering cypher about whom we learn little beyond the fact that she feels bereft at the absence of her husband (and is having a casual affair).  (Any deep concern for dad off fighting in the Pacific isn’t portrayed in Summer; we only hear that he’s on a destroyer escort and, at the end, that he’s come home and Grace is going off by train to meet him in San Francisco.  Otherwise, he’s just the familiar empty chair at the dining table.)

Charlie’s two friends fare better, though neither character is fully fleshed-out in Gurney’s script.  Pico Alexander’s Ted, the Canadian local boy who feels like a sideman to the wealthier American summer residents on whom he and his family wait but who nevertheless is a role model for Charlie, is almost a cliché teenager, gangly and more bravado than substance.  We’re supposed to understand that there’s real boyhood affection between Ted and Charlie—the American is devastated when Ted announces that he won’t be around after this summer because his family’s moving to Toronto, but then the subject’s dropped for the rest of the play—though neither actor develops any kind of true relationship with the other that’s more significant than boyish horseplay and a little one-upmanship.  That competition focuses on Bonny, of course, the 14-year-old American girl on whom both boys have a crush.  But while Ted actively—at least within the restrictions of What I Did Las Summer—pursues his goal, a date with Bonny without Charlie tagging along, Charlie seems to be playing a very successful game of “I like you so much, I’ll ignore you.”  Bonny, as presented by Juliet Brett, is as typical a young teenaged girl as any in theater or film, and Brett manages to give her something of a personality.  Yet, she’s so underused as a character—her existence precipitates the incident that brings the play to its conclusion, though Bonny herself doesn’t actually do anything to cause it—that Brett has little do but serve as a sort of catalyst.  We know Bonny likes both Ted and Charlie, but there’s no actual connection between Brett and either boy on stage, almost as if she were in another, connected story that Gurney didn’t write.

Aside from Narun’s projection of the typing, the set was almost nonexistent; most props were mimed.  (“Pete [Gurney’s nickname among his friends] and I don’t like to see a lot of junk on stage when the essence of theatre is to say: ‘Can we join in this act of imagination together?’” said Simpson in an interview.  The director asserted that when staged “simply,” the play takes on “an improvisatory feel.”)  Michael Yeargan designed a two-level platform with a simple wooden bench which served as a number of seats (including, for instance, the front seat of the Higgins’s, Ted’s, and Anna’s cars).  Other incidental properties were toted on and off by the actors—a stand-alone steering wheel, some stools which also doubled as luggage and boxes for the car’s back seat.  Brian Aldous’s lighting kept it all sunshine bright—I guess it never clouded over on Lake Erie that summer—and with the nearly-bare stage, made the scene feel unvaryingly . . . well, sunny.  (Two scenes take place at night.)  Claudia Brown’s costumes, as I hinted earlier, were perfectly unsurprising summer dress for a lakeside community of the time (and, really, perhaps except for the length of Grace’s dresses, anytime since the middle of the last century).  Ted wore Bermuda-length shorts and Charlie almost always wore khakis and a tee.  Except for Anna, whose attire was standard bohemian/country eccentricity, nothing gave away individual character detail—which, of course, is typical of Gurney’s habitual turf: the conform-minded, middle-class WASP.

An inescapable element of Simpson’s production of Summer, one that is part of Gurney’s original script, is the music played in the background of many scenes and interstices.  (This is unrelated, by the way, to the drums which accompany the dialogue.)  Bonny speaks of listening to Your Hit Parade, a popular radio program on Saturday evening that played the top-selling pop songs of the week, and Gurney mandates a soundtrack for Summer of these tunes, most of them now familiar even to later generations.  It was still the Big Band era in the U.S., and songs like “I’ll Be Seeing You” (recorded by Tamara Drasin, 1938), “Swinging on a Star” (Bing Crosby, 1944), and “The Last Time I Saw Paris” (Ann Sothern, 1941) were the soundtrack of 1945 just as what we now characterize as classic rock was the soundtrack of my teens.  As coordinated by sound designer Janie Bullard, it was a very effective evocation of the period and with the minimal scenery and simple costumes, was significant in evoking the milieu.

In the press, the reception was extremely mixed (as it was in 1983, though the current consensus is overall less dismissive.)  Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post, calling Summer a “Valuable Lesson play” that’s “predictable,” wrote that “it’s easy to overlook the story’s banality since the show’s warmly engaging, inventively staged and elevated by a wonderful cast.”  Vincentelli also said Summer’s “sepia-toned” as it “explores well-trod terrain” to “its inevitable bittersweet end,” but “well-crafted” (because the playwright “knows what he’s doing”).  “But you’re happy to go along,” the Post reviewer assured us, “because those clichés are so nicely wrapped.”  She summed up by adding that Summer “isn’t going to win any points for audacity, but either is mac and cheese.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy them.”  In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer’s review began with the “Bottom Line”: “A.R. Gurney's problem play is still a problem.”  The Signature revival, Winer wrote, has been “directed with intentionally exaggerated histrionics and strained stylization” which Simpson “stretches into a style that feels gimmicky and superimposed on the essential naturalism of the play,” which “only becomes meaningful in the final scenes.”  “Rather than a play about an annoying time of life,” concluded the Newsday reviewer, “this is an annoying play.”

In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz dubbed Summer a “modest 1981 memory play” and the Signature revival “easy-to-like” and named Simpson’s additions of the drummer and the projection of the clacking typing writer “deft.”  In the end, Dziemianowicz affirmed that while the play itself provides “some laughs but little sting,” the “strong acting and staging” give the production “a mellow buzz.” According to the New York Times’ Ben Brantley, Summer is “a very forgiving play”—for everyone except Charlie, it’s “author,” and a “guilty memoir” for its actual writer, Gurney.  First labeled “a particularly undernourished work” in 1983, Brantley asserted, but in the hands of director Simpson, the play “turns out to have something more than what many critics first saw.”  The Timesman reported that that was “a half-baked story of adolescent growing pains,” but added that Simpson “asks us to consider these shortcomings” as a kind of metatheatrical examination of “a playwright’s coming of age.”  (From my own perspective, that seems a little heavy for this slender effort.  But then, I’m not Ben Brantley.)  Brantley felt that Simpson’s “self-conscious” insertions “give ‘Summer’ an emotional substance it might otherwise lack” and, if viewed from the proper perspective, “an unexpected poignancy.”  Nevertheless, said the Times review-writer, “the script . . . remains fairly clunky” and a “sketchy, watercolor-by-numbers reminiscence.”  The characters, too, “are outlines in search of flesh” and even the cast “never quite disguise” this. 

In the New York Observer, Rex Reed revealed that he thinks What I Did Last Summer “is not one of [Gurney’s] greatest achievements, but it is entertaining, narratively polished and well worth seeing, even for a second time.”  Still, Reed observed, Summer “shows some of the wrinkles in his struggles.”  “Slender as a thread, the play is nevertheless riveting and funny and worthwhile,” Reed concluded, and “you go away sated.”  New York magazine’s Jesse Green reported, “The lightness of the social comedy almost excuses the self-consciously weak dramatization,. . . undisguised exposition . . . and a predictable rhythm of crisis and revelation.”  He found the staging additions Simpson invented “needless” and “a distraction . . . that you eventually tune out.”  Nevertheless, “this moth-eaten, presentational style is enjoyable and convincing,” added Green, though “surface verisimilitude is generally left untethered to anything accurate at a deeper level.”  More significantly, though, the New York review-writer asserted, “The play seems confused about how seriously it wants to be taken,” resulting in an ending that Green found “slightly smarmy and slightly obtuse.”  In the end, however, the play “never makes the case that its two halves are even related, let alone that they add up to something important.”  The New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” observed that the STC revival “can’t elevate the play beyond the maddeningly inconsequential” even though the “acting is generally fine”—special praise for Galvin and Nielsen—“and the dialogue practiced” while director Simpson “offers a few stylistic eccentricities.”

In Entertainment Weekly, Melissa Rose Bernardo deemed Summer “cozily familiar” in its “tender revival” at the Signature Center, even if the quasi-Brechtian elements “don’t work” and the lines are “less clever than annoying.”  Time Out New York’s David Cote called the revival of Summer “rather lovely and complexly articulated .”  The director, Cote found, “turns Gurney’s jokey audience asides and the watercolor-like haziness of his structure into an advantage” and “gives the bright, presentational staging a neatly abstracted sense of ritual.”  The “attractive and intelligent design,” reported the man from TONY, paired with the “excellent acting” to make the production “a pleasant discovery, the sort of show that almost feels like a vacation.” 

Among the cyber reviewers, Elyse Sommer credited “a pitch perfect cast and the insightful direction” on CurtainUp with giving Summer a “vivid new” life.  As if to contradict New York’s Jesse Green, Sommer asserted that under “Simpson's direction the essentially realistic family drama is fluidly integrated with the presentational style.”  Her only complaint about the “handsomely staged and well acted production” was “the contrivance of the way the plot twists.”  On New York Theatre Guide, Kathleen Campion stated that the Signature revival “benefits by charming staging and graphic effects that are brilliant in their simplicity and whimsy.”  Jonathan Mandell called Summer “knowing and affectionate” on New York Theater and added that it had been “given a deliciously acted production” at STC, one that is “deliberately simple and old-fashioned, but it is also deceptively so.” 


Samuel L. Leiter described Summer as a “frequently appealing but dramatically slight piece of nostalgia” on The BroadwayBlog.  “What makes this revival work,” said Leiter, is the “imaginatively stylized direction,” including “Simpson’s almost dance-like staging.”  He noted, however, that “little in the two-act play . . . is more than skin deep” even though “the dialogue is often amusing.”  With praise for the acting, the cyber reviewer lamented, “Simpson’s work is like a shiny veneer painted over a flimsy product that might not quite be all it seems if you could see beneath the surface.”  In the end, though, he found that Summer “makes it a pleasant way to spend a mid-spring evening.”  TheaterMania’s Hayley Levitt discerned that the play “is an imaginative riff on this era of cookie-cutter living” though it’s hidden beneath “an archetypal period piece.”  She noted, “The world of the play is sparse, but the world of the playwright is vivid with exaggerated memories playfully brought to life” by the acting and the directing.


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