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Theater Review

'Ancestral Voices' Speaks in Genteel Tones

A.R. Gurney's family saga revisiting Buffalo, N.Y., has a smooth West Coast premiere in Burbank.


Right now, at the Can~on Theatre in Beverly Hills, we have three performers seated on a stage, scripts in hand, discussing genitalia: "The Vagina Monologues."

Over in Burbank, meantime, we have five performers on a stage, seated behind music stands bearing manuscripts, discussing anything but.

Few would mistake A.R. Gurney's "Ancestral Voices" for that other show. Now at the Falcon in an extremely classy and well-acted West Coast premiere, the 1998 concert-style play takes us to Gurney's favored land of WASPish milk and honey, Buffalo, N.Y., in this instance before and during World War II.

Like "Love Letters," a Gurney play told through a lifelong correspondence, "Ancestral Voices" isn't meant to be staged fully. It is a kind of radio play without the radio. It began as a "regular" play, its narrator figure informs us right at the start, before the playwright tried to shoehorn it into novel form.

Whatever it is, it is. With this ensemble, at least, this pleasantly genteel work plays, and plays well.

The narrator is Eddie (Fred Savage, now a few years past "The Wonder Years"), son of an well-to-do Harvey (Robert Foxworth) and Jane (Mariette Hartley). A scandal has rocked the Buffalo waters. Jane's parents Madeleine (Katherine Helmond, of "Soap") and Ed (Rene Auberjonois) have separated, owing to an affair between Madeleine and an old family friend, Roger (also played by Auberjonois, with a snippy air).

Eddie, age 8 when the story begins, tries to patch things up between his grandparents to no avail. Eddie's grandmother suffers a sustained cold shoulder from Buffalo's matrons. His grandfather, already a drinker, drinks harder and becomes more isolated. Eddie, the great overhearer, eavesdrops on one furtive, pained adult conversation after another. His father's restrained but insistent theme: "I don't believe you're part of this conversation, Eddie."

True to its temporary life as a novel, "Ancestral Voices" covers four years and a multitude of locales. There's a moving extended sequence featuring grandfather and grandson on a fishing trip in the Adirondacks. Rather too neatly Gurney sets up parallels among Eddie's family, the declining fortunes and influence of Buffalo, and a world readying for war.

Certain details work beautifully: For his first big date, Eddie brings the lucky girl a "war-sage" (rhymes with corsage), made from Defense stamps and glue. Unlike "Love Letters," though, there's no particular reason for "Ancestral Voices" to be told in quasi-theatrical concert fashion. And there's something predictable in the way Gurney assigns a sad, harsh end to the grandmother, just as he did with Melissa in "Love Letters." That's what happens to free spirits in Gurneyland.

Director Gordon Hunt guides his quintet with ease. Savage and Hartley have done "Ancestral Voices" before, in separate East Coast productions. Savage works too hard for this material, in this format; he's aggressively cute. But Hartley's superb and witty and succinct as the mother. With a mere peer over her glasses and a slight case of Eastern lockjaw, she suggests an entire way of life.

Foxworth has lent his expressive voice and sterling final consonants to plenty of spoken-word projects in the past. He matches Hartley in every exchange. Helmond brings a lovely, half-distracted quality to Madeleine, unlucky in love; Auberjonois is touching as the grandfather. By instinct the latter underplays the stick figure of Roger, who makes all the other moneyed Republican Buffalo residents more likable by comparison.

In all, a fine presentation of minor, fairly absorbing Gurney.

* "Ancestral Voices," Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 26. $25-$35. (818) 955-8101. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Rene Auberjonois: Ed, Uncle Roger

Robert Foxworth: Harvey

Mariette Hartley: Jane

Katherine Helmond: Madeleine

Fred Savage: Eddie

Written by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Gordon Hunt. Scenic design by Angela Balogh Calin. Lighting by David Hahn. Sound by David Marling. Stage manager Lisa K. Monroe.

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