Scenes from American Life

Raleigh Little Theater
Through Sept. 20

If it’s easy to see what A.R. Gurney was aiming for in his 1969 play Scenes from American Life, by now it’s equally obvious just how far it misses the mark. That regrettable assessment comes despite the best efforts of a solid cast in this Raleigh Little Theatre production.

Gurney once said that a workshop version of Scenes at Tanglewood “gave me a sense that I was better than I thought I was.” By its close on opening night last Friday, the iteration at RLT led me to a somewhat contrasting conclusion: This show is an awful lot better than its script.

Still, let’s not get carried away. Cherished veterans Amy Bossi-Nasiatka, Jerry Zieman, Phil Lewis and Chris Brown ably anchored a trio of clearly talented RLT newcomersDelphon Curtis Jr., Kirsten Ehlert and Page Purgarwith Jessica Smith’s comic timing providing a welcome addition to the mix. But the ensemble’s thankless tasks included inhabiting and subsequently discarding a horde of mostly nonrecurring characters, which avuncular director Rod Rich has worked with them to craft rewarding satiric moments.

Given what they had to work with, we’ll call it yeomen’s workthough deep-sea salvage might be more appropriate. Not every company can make a show this watchable from a script that, by itself, inspires a half-star rating, at best.

For better, but mostly for worse, the indelible imprint of the ’60s is branded into Gurney’s text. Its clearly overreaching title may echo George Eliot, but it still belies a work that focuses exclusively on several generations of two affluent WASP families in Buffalo, New York.

Social criticism, without the subtleties and not that far from home, is the only reason for this play to exist. Through 39 elliptical, disconnected scenes, Gurney indicts the social class from which he came for What’s Wrong with This Country. The by-now predictable list of crimes includes racism, anti-Semitism, military-industrial hubris, a nearly Olympian sense of entitlement and a sexism within the range of the Cro-Magnons. This, despite the fact that these alleged masters of the universe never seem able to influence events beyond minor legal peccadilloes, the dating habits of the hired help or the corruption of their own children.

The playwright dutifully goes after these with hammer and tongs, allotting each scene a social dilemma it can call its own. In what passes for character development, Gurney outfits his characters in each sequence with one glaring hypocrisy. They display it. We move on. What we might call theatrical practice limited to diagnosis may have been big in the ’60s, but now it comes off as ham-handed, oversimplified and largely artless. The ’60s would also explain the “experimentalism” of a work which whips back and forth across the 20th century’s middle decades like a broken windshield wiper, and whose central character, saddled with the metaphorically obvious name Snoozer, is never seen.

The fragmentary episodes in Scenes were clearly intended to form a broad but incomplete mosaic about the decline and fall of a self-obsessed and self-indulgent culture into a fascist state. But to truly do that, we’d need characters with dimension instead of the straw men and women Gurney provides.

A talented director and ensemble can pick up some of the slack, and they do in Raleigh. Bossi-Nasiatka and Purgar portray a memorably addled couple of society moms: Purgar’s is disastrously intent on bringing up her daughter just right, while Bossi-Nasiatka’s imperiously informs her child that the bridge club is now ready to experiment with pot. But when most of the scenes stay too grim and too close to home, insufficient light is shed beyond an extremely small group of American lives.