It’s tempting to write off A.R. Gurney as a WASP Woody Allen, particularly after seeing The Middle Ages, one of the playwright’s earlier, less-focused works. Set in the trophy room of a high-society men’s club, the play spans three decades in the lives of four restless souls as they lament every modern bane of the upper crust: disapproving parents, disappointing children, failed courtships, failed marriages and, finally, a failed community. Like Allen, Gurney unfurls his cultural neuroses in a way that both pokes fun at and pays homage to his genetic lineage. Both writers seem to ask themselves the same question: “Why the hell am I so screwed up?” And both seem to agree that family should take most of the credit.
However, unlike Allen’s post-“Manhattan” opus, Gurney’s Middle Ages has a way of sticking with you long after its clever gags have worn off. His uppity characters, though not the sort we commoners would care to associate with in the real world, realistically capture the unpleasant process of going from young to not so young. When we first meet Barney and Eleanor (Terry Small and Marilee Talkington), they have already gone through this transformation. They are bitter, middle-aged and lonely — and embroiled in a bickering match over the details of Barney’s father’s funeral. The two obviously share a long and complicated history, and their apparent lack of tolerance for each other makes it difficult to care about either one.
But before we know it, we’re transported back three decades to a time when, in the same trophy room, a teenaged Barney and Eleanor first lay eyes on each other. Eleanor, a shy girl from the sticks, ducks into the room to escape a party and the pressures of socializing. There she discovers Barney, a bratty but charming rich kid whose white-bread brethren have practically built the club. The two share an instant attraction, exchanging good-natured jabs and flirtatious glances. As we watch them effortlessly connect, we’re forced to think about the embittered drips we know they’ll become, and we wonder which of life’s many soul-crushing mechanisms will be most responsible for taking them from point A to point B. Gurney’s answer is clear: It’s the parents, stupid. And while Barney’s father (George Ashiotis) and Eleanor’s mother (Melanie Boland) are both well-intentioned, their refusal to allow Barney and Eleanor the liberty of choosing their own paths results in a lifetime of discontent for all involved.
As presented by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, Middle Ages is an effective meditation on the universal strangeness of family. Small and Talkington are wonderful as the central couple, hitting all the right notes in Barney and Eleanor’s pivotal transformation from wide-eyed teens to disheartened adults. Small is particularly spot-on as the younger Barney, who can’t separate his heart from his hormones. Boland, as Eleanor’s opportunistic mother, finds the right balance between parental concern and parental control, and Ashiotis has moments early on as Barney’s father, though he seems less committed to his role as the play progresses.
Midway through the first act of Middle Ages, Eleanor’s mother explains to her teenage daughter that being an adult means learning how to pretend. Whether Gurney believes we pretend for our own sake or the sake of others is unclear, but he understands the pathetic creatures we become when we pretend for too long.
Originally published in Show Business Weekly, October 2008