Criticizing A.R. Gurney’s plays for lack of depth is like criticizing your Toyota Prius for not winning NASCAR—you should know what you’re buying right from the start. Gurney has always written slightly behind the curve, illustrating the dynamics of new societal mores for The New Yorker set when their controversy is waning in the rest of the world. Gurney is at his best when he's light. His plays are nearly always entertaining—sometimes even exhilarating, if not quite profound. Yet, A Light Lunch, currently enjoying its World Premiere at The Flea Theater, feels like a throwaway, a diversion. At one point it alludes to itself as an aborted work. It’s light, even by Gurney’s standards.
In A Light Lunch, Gurney is good-naturedly-- sometimes even painfully--aware of his pigeonholed reputation as a cataloguer of the foibles of the privileged upper classes. He pokes fun at himself throughout the play, almost as if he’s trying to inoculate it from criticism. Even the title suggests that we’re not going to get full-on Gurney here.
A Light Lunch is set in a nondescript Italian restaurant frequented by “theater people,” replete with checked red and white tablecloths; there are no set changes. The wall is decorated with Paul Howard caricatures of playwrights whose work has been presented at The Flea. That’s the most interesting part of a set that we see for 80 minutes in this intermissionless one act.
Shortly after George W. Bush has left office, Beth (Beth Hoyt), a young lawyer from Texas, working for the Bush family, flies to New York to meet Gary (Tom Lipinski), Gurney’s agent. The Bush family, through a mole, has learned that Gurney has written an unreleased play highly critical of the former President, and has authorized Beth to offer an obscene amount of money to the playwright to make sure it “will never see the light of day.” From an administration that was hopelessly oblivious to the arts, this, alone, should be the most absurd part of the play.
The action should be as preposterous as the plot but, incongruously, it isn’t. Directed by Jim Simpson, Hoyt and Lipinski can’t seem to find the ridiculous in their roles and play their characters too straight.
It takes the likeable but apparently dense Gary almost half the play to figure out that Beth is working for Bush and not against him, while the rest of us have known that from the start. Throughout the play, the audience is so far ahead of the characters that I found my mind wandering until they caught up. “There’s Mac Wellman!” “Is that Young Jean Lee?” I asked myself as I squinted at the caricatures. I also noticed from my vantage point that, while Beth is served actual food, there is nothing in Gary’s soup bowl. “C’mon, propmaster, take a chance! It’s only liquid!” I caught myself muttering.
The pair’s waitress, Viola (Havilah Brewster), an aspiring actress in perpetual audition mode, with an incorrigibly exaggerated New York accent, succeeds in being as annoying as she’s meant to be, interrupting negotiations just when they’re about to get tense. For every joke that works there are about three warmed over late night television clunkers, like this exchange that takes place when it appears that Beth will be returning to Texas empty handed:
GARY (to BETH): I assume the Bush family will reimburse you for the full amount...
VIOLA: Don’t be too sure. Did you read Bush's proposal on Medicare?
A new character, Marshall (John Russo), Viola’s boyfriend and a drama professor at The New School, arrives near the end of the play to help devise an appropriate ending to what we learn is an unfinished play. Russo, who is the only actor seemingly tuned into the absurdity of the premise, turns in a terrific performance, but it’s all too little, too late.
Unfortunately, in the end, A Light Lunch is about as satisfying as an empty bowl of soup.