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Use the Good China 

by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & nsist on formal dining all the time, and you're just being fussy. On the other hand, it's nice every once in awhile to get dressed up and celebrate good food and good friends.

The Dining Room, by A.R. Gurney Jr. (at Interplayers through Oct. 4), embraces that kind of ambivalence. Over the course of 20 scenes scattered from the 1930s to the '70s -- and with six actors playing nearly 60 characters -- Gurney mocks those who gulp down dinner while standing up just as much as he ridicules all the blue-haired matrons with their finger bowls.

The action swirls around a turn-of-the-century dining room table, with characters from different decades wandering past one another, oblivious to the people who will inhabit the same space years from now (or years ago). There's no real plot in The Dining Room; what there is, in director Karen Kalensky's production, is a sense of how we all want love and affection and a sense of home. And how we don't always know how to acquire it.

Just as Gurney's message is all-embracing -- traditions are ennobling, traditions are hidebound -- his characterizations encompass multiple traits: the philandering woman with a mothering instinct, the wife who reveres her husband but sees how foolish he can be. Gurney may deliver one rapid-fire scene after another, but his Dining Room people -- the prominent ones, anyway -- aren't just caricatures.

Even if some of the characterizations lack subtlety, the Interplayers cast generally delivers interesting and complicated people onstage. As a demanding and proper patriarch of the 1930s, for example, Reed McColm stands out. He draws out his vowels and pauses to let his commands sink in; soon after, he's all knock-kneed and peeking about with sidelong glances as an Irish boy who's infatuated with the family maid. Perhaps best of all -- and in an example of how a rounded characterization can be achieved even amid the rapid-fire turnover of Gurney's short scenes -- McColm chooses to play a cranky grandfather as more than just cranky. Approached for money by a grandson he barely knows, McColm doesn't laugh at the codger and turn the scene into mere ridicule of graybeards; instead, Granddad carves out a loving interrogation of the boy, questioning and guiding him, aware of life's cyclical nature but trying to stave off its disasters for another generation yet.

Thomas Stewart shines as an angry son who just wants to sell off his family's possessions and as an architect who has reasons of his own for wanting to re-purpose the dining room as offices. Another newcomer to the Interplayers stage, Bethany Hart, makes her mark as a rebellious teen, resentful sibling, needy daughter and bratty kid.

Michael Maher plods through his early scenes without affect, but he shines in a second-act sequence as a father who wants to help his hopelessly muddled adult daughter almost as much as he wants his next drink. Maher finds the contradiction (wanting to help, wanting to escape) and plays both sides of the character. Similarly, Anne Selcoe rounded her portrayals by finding some of the servant in the matriarch, and vice versa.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ome of the acting, however, takes shortcuts. (With so many scenes and characters, stereotypes start to look tempting.) A scene between a society matron and her unrefined, immature daughter was ruined by director Kalensky's decision to portray the daughter as a version of Gilda Radner's Lisa Loopner. There could have been an interesting debate between a mother who values tradition and a daughter who values self-determination; instead, it became a one-dimensional comic skit that swirled down the drain of caricature.

Similarly, one of Gurney's most startling inversions -- the grad student in anthropology studying his grandmother as "one of the WASPs of the northeastern United States" -- gets undermined by Kalensky's allowing Stewart (otherwise very effective throughout the evening) to camp up the student as a nerdy klutz who keeps dropping his notebook. Instead of going for an insight -- the woman's realization that the rituals she cherishes are, for others, just fodder for academic study -- the scene just devolved into farce.

A roll-around-under-the-table scene between Kalensky and Maher that should have sizzled with sexual tension fizzled instead. And watching adults act like little children can be cringe-worthy sometimes, though most of the excesses are avoided here.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & ultiple role-playing, taken to the extent that it is here, delights audiences and caters to a childlike sense of playfulness: What will she be like in this scene? There's a wonderful kind of time-defying, universalizing quality to having a single actor play a whole roomful of characters: Matriarchs turn into housemaids turn into spoiled children, and the mind is tugged away from our differences and toward the shared goals that unite us. It's inspiring: Here within these same walls have lived (will live) people whose ups and downs are significantly higher or lower than my own. Just folks -- folks who figured out the same problems, even if the customs of our grandparents' generation did seem so awfully peculiar at the time.

Gurney's 27-year-old play has already become a familiar part the American theatrical landscape. By capturing most of the laughs and heartbreak in Gurney's script, this Interplayers production keeps the tradition going. It presents a series of stolen glimpses, both sad and funny, at how some people chose to live their upper-middle-class lives. And still do.

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