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Raleigh Little Theatre guest director Rod Rich’s briskly paced production of Scenes from American Life, which will complete its three-week run on Sept. 10-13 and 17-20 in RLT’s Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, is energetically acted but only moderately entertaining, because the episodic script somehow lacks the bite of good satire, not to mention distinct central characters and a discernable dramatic through-line.
In Scenes from American Life, celebrated social satirist A.R. Gurney, Jr. takes another mighty swipe at the Establishment, but his upper-middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant characters are little more than WASP stereotypes, hardly distinguishable from one another. Moreover, the vignettes in which they appear are sometimes so brief that their point is obscured. RLT patrons might well ask, “WASP, where is thy sting?,” because the satire in Scenes from American Life is nowhere near as razor-sharp and on the mark as the zingers that earned The Dining Room (1985) and Love Letters (1990) nominations for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
In this early episodic comedy, first produced in 1970, Buffalo, NY-born playwright A.R. Gurney turns his gimlet eye toward his well-to-do friends and neighbors in his much-disparaged hometown beside Lake Erie. He plunks these pillars of society squarely in the center of his satirical dartboard; and then lances them over and over in three dozen short scenes that unfold against the backdrop of 20th century America in transition, starting at the tail-end of the Prohibition Era and continuing through World War II, the Korean War, the McCarthy Era, and the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, which was still grinding on when Scenes from American Life made its Off-Broadway debut on March 25, 1971.
Eight game RLT cast members — Amy Bossi-Nasiatka, Chris Brown, Delphon Curtis, Jr., Kirsten Ehlert, Phil Lewis, Jessica M. Smith, Page Purgar, and Jerry Zieman — strive mightily to breathe life into more than 100 roles. But Gurney’s two-dimensional caricatures and the shallowness of the sitcom-quality script does not give them many dramatic depths to plumb.
Amy Bossi-Nasiatka puts pizzazz into her portrayals of a drunk at a christening, a hypocritical matron rebuking her Irish maid (Ehlert) for the lass’ backstairs assignations, another drunk talking to her psychiatrist, etc. Chris Brown brings gravitas to a number of fatherly roles and is particularly good as an anti-Semitic country-club member who cynically blackballs a Jewish friend and business associate and, later, as a colonel dealing with a Vietnam War protestor; Delphon Curtis, Jr. performs a variety of parts with gusto; Kirsten Ehlert, Phil Lewis, and Jessica Smith likewise tackle their mini-roles with relish; and Page Purgar makes the most of her moments in the spotlight, especially as a defiant hippie chick arrested for hitchhiking on the New York State throughway.
The always-amusing Jerry Zieman once again gives a crowd-pleasing performance as a powerful member of the in-crowd telephoning a friend who is a judge and asking him to fix his ticket for drunken driving. Zieman’s cameos as a stammering school boy and, later, as a dancing master at a prep school are also memorable.
Director Rod Rich and his wife, choreographer Nancy Rich, collaborate successfully with scenic designer Shannon Clark, lighting designer Jim Zervas, and costume designer Jenny Butler to give Scenes from American Life a handsome staging. But neither their artistry nor passionate performances by an enthusiastic ensemble can overcome the flaws in the script.
Scenes from American Life will resume Sept. 10-13 and 17-20. See our theater calendar for details.