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Stage Review : Gurney's America, 1970: A Double-edged Salute

April 23, 1986|RAY LOYND

A little toy American flag, pierced by amber light in a maw of darkness, flutters bravely into view, wavers momentarily, and is then gone. This opening image in "Scenes From American Life" at the Skylight Theater establishes at once playwright A. R. Gurney's affectionate, forlorn and satiric demolition of the American dream as nurtured by the social classes of the upper middle and beyond.

Written in 1970 as a response to the mess in Vietnam, the play carries renewed weight today, enhanced by a production so airborne that it flies with the grace of a balloon. Michael Arabian's direction is silver-clean, light and lean. An ensemble of four men and four women play multiple characters and ages, alternately dramatizing in short scenes the values of the well heeled from the Depression onward.

The chameleon nature of the acting is luminous and artful--a performer, for instance, playing a child one minute, a father slapping his son the next, a martinet of an Orwellian bureaucrat after that. Multiply that eight times over by the number of performers and you can see the collective skill of this cast. The players' dexterity unspools a seamless social tapestry, a comic/sad Protestant family album that X-rays even as it skims a hundred surfaces.

Scenes are tellingly signaled by choric lines from a piano. They range from the ostensibly banal (a '50s Bunny Hop), to the portentous (police state ID cards and neighborhood electric fences), to the richly satiric (a party host urging a guest to invest in machine guns; a self-awareness class that turns sexually nasty).

The message is that American values fostered by the elite are spawning a dying society--not exactly a fresh thought, but here refocused by a technique that delivers resonant definition. The adroitly balanced ensemble consists of Tom Dahlgren, Kristina David, Edith Fields, Frank Fowler, Gary Guidinger, Catherine MacNeal, Margaret Muse and James Siering.

The closing burnished moment, an elegiac canoe-burning by a wealthy family bidding a ritual goodby to an annual-way-of-life summer at the lake, is effectively calibrated to the soulful and vanishing Stars and Stripes that open the play.

The ensemble work extends to the production's designers: Ray Finnel (whose swift-wheeled props contribute to the fluidity), Ilya Mindlin (whose lighting tonally measures events), Barbara Cox (whose costumes languidly define their complacent targets) and Andy McCarl (whose soft, crackling lakeside canoe fire strikes a mournful fade-out).

Performances at 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave., Hollywood, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through June 7, (213) 874-3678.

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