When you come to think of it, the drawing room, as a scene for comedy, doesn't hold a candelabrum to the dining room. The emotional content of events taking place in dining rooms, from Father's indoctrination lectures on social and political attitudes, to Mother's comandeering the table to type a master's thesis meant to liberate her from the entire house, is deeper than anything that normally occurs on a sofa.
We might not have come to think of it, however, without A.R. Gurney Jr., whose delicious comedy, "The Dining Room," is the fifth offering of the Eisenhower Theater Season at the Kennedy Center. In an overlapping series of vignettes, taking place over the last half-century among different age groups and combinations of relatives, lovers and friends, it deals with the influence of dining-room events on the psyche.
Six fine actors, led by the brilliant Frances Sternhagen, all play WASP -- preppy -- children, parents, grandparents and their servants, in rapid succession. Barry Nelson, Mary Catherine Wright, Peter Coffield, Jeanne Ruskin and Richard Backus complete the cast, directed by David Trainer. But the dining room itself, the grandly bland upper-class dining room, with pale- peach walls, ten matching chairs, and a swinging door for the servant, is the central character.
Some reactions to it, like that of an architect viciously determined to carve up a dining room reminiscent of his childhood on behalf of a client who likes the room as it is, or a teen-aged girl who can't wait to get drunk when her parents are away but is horrified at the idea of reveling in the dining room, are extreme. Others, like the behavior of a mother-hostess at a children's birthday party, officiously instilling table manners in the guests while simultaneously plotting an affair with Billy's father, are more subdued.
Questions of class are revealed in a flash -- a flirtatious divorcee abandons a remnant of stiff caution on hearing that the carpenter who has come to repair her table is not the son of a cabinetmaker, as she had guessed, but a former stockbroker whose father was a banker. So are plain human problems -- an old lady, at the 52nd Thanksgiving dinner in her own dining room, keeps arising and announcing to her grown sons, whom she can't place, "Well, this is all very nice, but I think I'd like to go home now."
Change is chronicled in deftly brief scenes. There is the woman whose sexual alliances are so muddled that she wants to move home again, with her three wild children, to discover her past. When she begs her reluctant father, "I can't go back," he replies: "Neither can I, sweetheart, neither can I."
And there is the puzzlement of teen-agers whose father is embarking on a public battle of honor on behalf of Uncle Henry, who was insulted in the steam bath of his club by a reference "to his private life." Is it, they want to know, that "Uncle Henry's a fruit?" Their mother replies, with tremendous dignity, "It may be, sweetheart. But you don't say it to his face, and you don't say it in the club, and you don't say it within a ten-mile radius of your father."
It is all a comedy of perhaps-vanishing manners, but ones that will long be a race memory for an influential portion of American society.
THE DINING ROOM -- At the Eisenhower Theater through July 10.