A labored day, indeed

by Staff

LABOR OF LOVE: Ralph (James Colby) and Dennis (Brooks
COURTESY PHOTO

Ashmanskas in a scene of the Old Globe Theatre’s ‘Labor Day.’

The Old Globe Theater maintains its chummy relationship with A.R. Gurney by staging his latest play, “Labor Day,” until mid-month. The world premiere may further the Globe’s reputation as his patron but doesn’t do much for local theater, as despite flashes of humor, the lackluster play ultimately disappoints.

Gurney has been called the chronicler of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, the upper-middle-class Easterners whose lives echo through Updike, Cheever and Salinger, but reach the masses mostly through the soap-opera antics of the Kennedy clan (who, as Catholics, don’t fit the label anyway).

Gurney resents the categorization, feeling boxed into a niche he’d rather escape, but the thematic content of “Labor Day” only reaffirms it. If he hopes to break new ground and, even more, to reach Broadway, the vapid white-collar blues offered here won’t get him there.

The plot involves John, whose new play has the makings of a Broadway hit. Even Robert Redford wants to play the lead, if John will rewrite it to give it a snappier ending. Over the course of a Labor Day weekend, amid interruptions by spouse and children, he is chivvied by his director friend, Dennis, to find that final scene.

Labor Day makes the fatal flaw of the exhausted author, writing about writing. Gurney is no postmodernist gleefully putting himself on stage and into the story. Rather, he believes that the struggles of writer’s block will make for good drama, which it doesn’t. Even Woody Allen, our master intellectual-as-artist, knows to spice up his writerly struggles with sex, career confusion and the occasional serious crime. Gurney, on the other hand, believes that high drama exists in the search for a perfect closing scene.

His play comes across as a pallid Chekhov, with a family brought together at the advent of decline. Unlike “Uncle Vanya” or “The Cherry Orchard,” however, no larger pitfalls lurk: no unrequited love, no true class conflict, and most of all, no impending bankruptcy and eviction. John is well off, his play will be performed in regional theater regardless, and even Dennis’ career concerns ? he hopes that the play will be his ticket to Hollywood ? are shrugged off at play’s end, undercutting its very raison d’etre.

Any redeeming social comment lies in the family’s division by a genuine (if hackneyed) crisis, when John’s other daughter (an offstage presence only) decides to abandon husband and family for her car mechanic. The resulting class division of white vs. blue collar is never explored, nor are the moral issues of infidelity and adultery ever raised.

What is raised instead are eyebrows, frown lines and, perhaps, the occasional tone of voice. No one seems profoundly moved, nor should one, given the daughter’s evident marital dissatisfaction. If this is the best that Gurney can manage, why write it?

A more dynamic cast could solve half the problems. Brooks Ashmanskas plays Dennis with enough swish to be gay clich