Family Furniture's Love Letter to the Fifties

Have you ever felt like you were watching a show so on-the-nose and assured to the point that you feel the playwright is one smug bitch, like, eating Cheetos on the couch and congratulating him/herself at how smart their new show is?

Congrats A.R Gurney…I left your new play, Family Furniture, which opened this weekend at the Flea Theater, with my mind moving a mile-a-minute processing your show and questioning and second-guessing how I really felt about it. But on a second third fourth glance, your show is aesthetically pleasing in a way. And should you feel smug about it - I am not suggesting you are - you’ve earned the right.

Let me state right off the bat: Family Furniture isn’t exactly entertaining. That is never the be-all, end-all of theater (or at least when assessing it), but it is a relevant factor here because the plot - a family in the summer of 1952 gets uprooted when the two children are in pursuit of their next major movement in life, complete with significant others, while the mother may or may not be having an affair with a family friend - does not lend itself to a particularly interesting scope of a story.

But weirdly enough, that is not the issue here. In fact, that is not an issue at all. The show’s biggest and, as it turns out, only drawback is that it drags. A lot. Like, I thought the show was three-hours long with no intermission (the actual runtime is about half of that). The fact that some scenes are overlong and don’t contribute much override some of the show’s finer, more subtle aspects. Namely, just about everything else.

I may be running the risk of overthinking Family Furniture, but given its plain premise, its plain characters, its…well, plain everything, why didn’t I zone out and start thinking of what type of Starbucks holiday drink to get? Why was it so alluring to stick with this family and their “not raising their voices above a certain octave” ways of conversing? 

If I had to surmise, I think A.R Gurney’s intention was not to put out an enthralling, period piece in the William Inge-mold. Instead, he was creating a window to the past. Between the classic radio tunes in certain transitions and backdrops, to how emphatically the characters were talking about tennis matches and cars and the film High Noon, I sensed nostalgia. Gurney was born in Buffalo and was in his early-twenties circa 1952, which not-concidentally, matches up with the show’s setting in Buffalo and the character Nick, the family’s son/brother attending college. See where this is going?

To go off that, Gurney could be making a deft bit of social commentary. The themes of Family Furniture are played out in culture everywhere nowadays - especially illicit affairs and infidelity (I mean, there is a show called Scandal on prime-time television). The characters in the show - and by extension, that era - approached these hot topics with tact. This is a sharp contrast to the hyperbolic, social media, jump-to-conclusions tabloid and reality television consumption of today. 

It is worth pointing out that Andrew Keenan-Bolger, playing Nick, gives a very understated performance. His casting for the part didn’t make sense initially - I never would have matched him with such a clean-cut, "button-down and khakis” upper class when compared to his past roles (Robertson Ay in Mary Poppins and the Brooklyn-accented Crutchie from Newsies, most recently). But with more stage time then any other member of the ensemble (I think, feel free to correct me), I was taken aback by how believable he was and how all of his emotions were perfectly calibrated.

Why I think Family Furniture ultimately works is because it presents a sincere and passionate portrayal of a period in time long gone and that some of us, myself included, would have loved to live in if given the choice. And naturally, this being the theater, some of the dialogue is a projection of how we wish we could talk - philosophy, cunning language and Hamlet references just popping up in organic conversation. Gurney managed to take his (alleged) autobiographical experiences and turn out something that is equal parts grounded and whimsical for a modern audience. To say that is commendable is an understatement; the fact that I was initially blind-sighted by its appeal goes to show how smart the show is without ostensibly trying.

Ticket Provided by the Production

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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