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by Samuel L. Leiter
In the popular, semiautobiographical 1971 movie, Summer of ’42, Hermie, an innocent 15-year-old boy vacationing with his family on Nantucket Island, has a romantic relationship with a beautiful young woman whose husband has gone off to war. I couldn’t help remembering this while watching A.R. Gurney’s semiautobiographical 1983 play, What I Did Last Summer, in which Charlie, an innocent 14-year-old vacationing with his family on Lake Erie in the summer of 1945, while his father is off at war, has a nonromantic relationship with an unusual middle-aged woman. In both instances, when the summer ends, so does the relationship between boy and woman, although the memory and influence of that wartime summer never fade.
Gurney’s comedy, originally produced by the Circle Repertory Company, and now in revival at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre, where the 84-year-old dramatist is in residency, is a frequently appealing but dramatically slight piece of nostalgia for a time long gone, when you were warned not to go in the water for an hour after eating, and when the music in the air was likely to be “Swinging on a Star” or “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.”
Charlie (Noah Galvin), son of the well-to-do, properly conservative—if secretly adulterous—Grace (Carolyn McCormick), and brother of the pesky 19-year-old Elsie (Kate McGonigle), is friends with a 16-year-old Canadian boy named Ted (Pico Alexander), and a cute 14-year-old girl named Bonny (Juliet Brett). Needing pocket money, Charlie convinces the local eccentric, a talented art teacher of part-Amerindian descent named Anna Trumbull (Kristine Nielsen), to give him odd jobs. Known as the Pig Woman because her house used to be a pigsty, her father was a railroad executive but she fell on hard times after being the mistress of a wealthy doctor; Anna now holds cynical views toward the privileged class in which she was raised and to which Charlie’s WASP parents belong. Charlie becomes her art student, falls under her free-spirited influence, rebels against his upbringing, clashes with his mother, and wants to remain with Anna rather than go to the exclusive boarding school his mother has arranged for him. Grace visits Anna, once her own teacher, inciting the play’s most dramatic confrontation, before the situation resolves itself and the summer comes to its bittersweet end.
Although the dialogue is often amusing and there’s sentimental interest in the period, little in the two-act play (which runs around two hours) is more than skin deep, even if, at the end, a tear wells up in your eye when Charlie and his muse must come to their inevitable parting. The second act conflict between Grace and Anna over what’s best for the boy strikes sparks but seems stylistically out of keeping with what precedes and follows it.
What makes this revival work is Jim Simpson’s imaginatively stylized direction, which takes its cue from Gurney’s own playful fourth-wall smashing, not only when characters speak directly to the audience but also when they wonder who and what the play’s about. Here’s Elsie at one point: “Oh boy. I’ll tell you one thing this play is not about. It’s not about me. It’s not about how it feels to grow up during a war when all the boys your age are away.” Later, when a crisis gives her something important to do, she declares: “Good God! Maybe this play is about me, after all.”
Simpson’s almost dance-like staging uses a practically bare stage (designed by Michael Yeargan and perfectly lit by Brian Aldous) of light-toned wood, set against a neutral colored backdrop, angled like a sail, with only a bench and a couple of low stools to represent furniture or a car; most props are mimed. Shown on the backdrop are John Narun’s clever projections, composed largely of typewriter letters sometimes arranged in pointillist images. The projections occasionally type out Gurney’s stage directions as we watch—like the one that says, “throughout this play, we should be aware of things in the process of being fabricated or made”—and the actors even sometimes see and react to them.
Equally effective is the use of an onstage percussionist (Dan Weiner) who accompanies much of the action with a wide assortment of sound effects punctuating the business, like the closing of car doors or the shelling of peas. Again, the actors now and then respond with a glance or gesture to acknowledge their reaction to a particular sound, or even its absence.
Simpson’s work is like a shiny veneer painted over a flimsy product that might not quite be all it seems if you could see beneath the surface. The actors fit Simpson’s brighter-than-life vision well, but Kristine Nielsen, while too broadly comic to be convincing as Anna, nonetheless steals the show with her unique quirkiness, and is quite touching at the end. She gives What I Did Last Summer that extra touch that makes it a pleasant way to spend a mid-spring evening.
What I Did Last Summer
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through June 7
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).