Toronto’s Soulpepper presents The Dining Room, A. R. Gurney’s comedy about #WhitePeopleProblems
White People Problems, as defined by comedian Louis C.K., is “when your life is so amazing, that you make shit up to be upset about”; like when you lose the hood ornament on your Mercedes or when your polo tournament gets rained out. Soulpepper’s production of A. R. Gurney’s play The Dining Room is essentially two hours of White People Problems.
One scene in particular hit it on the head and serves as a meta reference to the play itself; a university student (Jeff Lillico) photographs his grand aunt (Sarah Wilson) going through the elaborate ritual of setting the table with the family’s fine china that had been passed down through generations. The reveal (*spoiler alert*) is that the photo essay is for an anthropology class examining the eating rituals of dying cultures; in this case, New England WASP culture.
The Dining Room was first produced Off-Broadway in 1982 and documents the slow, steady decline of WASP culture already occurring at the time. It’s a collection of stories about genteel, well-heeled, well-to-do, characters and their servants. With few exceptions, their problems are frivolous and of no real consequence.
A cast of six Soulpepper stalwarts; Derek Boyes, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Jeff Lillico, Diego Matamoros, Brenda Robins, and Sarah Wilson, plays more than 50 characters ranging in age from school children to grandparents in a dizzying array of permutations and combinations; sometimes older cast members even play the children of younger cast members.
The entire play takes place in a single location; designer Robin Fisher’s old-school, wooden dining room set. Scenes meld into one another, characters from the next scene often enter before the current scene has finished. It’s as if we were seeing the ghosts of all the people who’ve ever inhabited this space flowing in and out and the effect also keeps the action moving at a good pace and creates a nice flow from scene to scene.
Truly an ensemble piece, the sextet is remarkably evenly-matched and no one actor stood out as being particularly good or bad.
With such a large number of characters the performer’s instinct may be to exaggerate and give each character distinctive quirks. Director Joseph Ziegler and his cast resist this urge; the acting is anything but overwrought. In fact, if anything, the characters all sort of bleed into one another and there’s an underlying sameness to all of them; not surprisingly since they all pretty much share the same post in life.
One highlight for me included the scene where a grandson (Jeff Lillico) visits his grandfather (Diego Matamoros) and asks for money to attend a boarding school which he has no real interest in actually attending. The characters develop some real, palpable tension that keeps the scene interesting to watch.
Another highlight was the most tragic and emotionally resonant scene where a family hosts Thanksgiving dinner for their aging mother (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember any of them. It’s the one scene in the play where the characters are dealing with a problem that isn’t at least partially frivolous which makes it all the heavier.
Other than in that one scene, the characters aren’t at all relatable; I don’t think they’re supposed to be. But to be honest, I didn’t even find the characters particularly interesting, though I think that’s more of a script issue than an execution issue. Billed as a comedy, The Dining Room isn’t really “ha ha”-funny, it’s more “hmm, that’s interesting”-funny. The humour comes from the situations in each of the vignettes but the whole thing felt like a bit of an academic exercise to me and though I enjoyed parts of it I can’t honestly say I wasn’t a little bored by the end.
- The Dining Room is playing through March 7, 2015 at the Young Centre for the Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, in the Distillery Historic District, Toronto.
- Tickets $29.50 – $89 (plus service charge);
- Tickets are available in person at the venue box office, by phone at 416-866-8666 or online at soulpepper.ca.
Photo of Jeff Lillico & Sarah Wilson by Cylla von Tiedemann.