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UNDER A CHEEVER

In his many short stories, John Cheever skimmed the surface of bourgeois American family life, laying bare the pretensions of suburban culture and dissecting the hopelessness of its materialism in nicely served, if thin, slices of life. In A Cheever Evening, playwright A.R. Gurney stirs together a number of scenes...
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In his many short stories, John Cheever skimmed the surface of bourgeois American family life, laying bare the pretensions of suburban culture and dissecting the hopelessness of its materialism in nicely served, if thin, slices of life. In A Cheever Evening, playwright A.R. Gurney stirs together a number of scenes from Cheever stories and yields a tasty but unsatisfying soup. Despite a cleverly staged production by Germinal Stage Denver, this best-of-Cheever concoction is none too nourishing.

Instead, we find sardonic wit and a kind of creeping despair disguised as honesty. All the action appears to take place in the early 1950s. A couple sits listening to their new, expensive radio and quickly discovers that the radio has the power to tune in to the lives of their neighbors all over the apartment building. They quickly turn it off. But when the husband is away, the wife listens in--and all the pettiness, infidelities, arguments and brutality she hears begin to have an effect on her. Like a virus, the meanness of others spreads to the couple, and the husband's verbal abuse escalates.

Almost all the many stories in the first act are about base motives lurking beneath slick surfaces. Two women meet, one rich and superior, the other poor, envious and angry. Neither is sympathetic--the poor woman is as nasty as the rich one, a frustrated materialist irked by her husband's failure to make it big in business. In another vignette, a woman approaches the principal of her daughter's prep school, asking when black children will be allowed to enroll. What appears to be a budding social conscience, though, may be nothing more than an eccentric way to annoy her husband; she ends up seeking solace in adultery.

In one absolutely hilarious sequence, a man who has lost his job starts robbing his neighbors' wallets so he can maintain his suburban lifestyle, not halting for an instant his wife's extravagances. He finds in himself chambers of regret he never suspected but goes right on stealing. Then there's the lonely woman who exchanges sexual favors for the key to her lover's bomb shelter--just in case the Russkies drop the big one.

In Cheever's world, husbands and wives grow bored with each other and cheat in mindless, laughable ways. One man punches his wife's would-be lover and then coaxes her with romantic candlelight dinners and lavish attention. Somehow, she doesn't seem all that pleased.

The second act has more cohesion, taking place at the beach, where several families deal with alcoholism, rebellious daughters, anguished fathers and useless sons. Everyone is neurotic and selfish and funny.

Jenny MacDonald, Cody Alexander and Eva Doak play the many women in these scenes with great skill and presence. MacDonald can play fragile charm as readily as she can bitchy superiority or spine-chilling hate. Alexander is particularly apt with aging alcoholic mothers and envious friends, while Doak lends equal poise to a delightful slut and a detested housewife.

Rick Chamberlain plays the tender, confused fathers with memorable patrician grace and is equally convincing as arrogant, upper-class jerks. Christopher Berliner has an eagle eye, a genteel malevolence that is fully engaging. And Eric Field gives the most rousing, wicked performance as the middle-class wallet-snatcher.

While it's always useful to gaze into the shallows of middle-class life, though, all this angst gets old fast. Somehow we are led to expect a little more from Gurney's pastiche than we wind up getting. Maybe it's the actors' fault--they're so good that the viewer keeps looking for some meaningful point to it all.

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