We gave it a B+
Perhaps it’s the wartime, summer-on-Lake-Erie setting, but there’s something cozily familiar about What I Did Last Summer, A.R. Gurney’s 1982 autobiographical coming-of-age drama that’s currently receiving a tender revival at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre. His most recent new stage work (No. 51andat age 84, thank you very much)is one the prolific Gurney would return to 2013’s delightful Family Furniture. Or maybe it’s the opening line—“This is a play about me when I was fourteen,” spoken by the teenager-in-turmoil protagonist Charlie (Noah Galvin)—which sounds suspiciously like this line from another autobiographical Gurney play, 2006’s Indian Blood, delivered by another rambunctious teen/Gurney stand-in: “This is a play about me when I was growing up…”
Yet the chief pleasure of a Gurney play is rooted in that recognition: the Buffalo, NY location (also the author’s hometown); the well-bred WASP personalities; the understated, character-driven humor. Horton Foote did the same thing, but about 1,300 miles south in Harrison, Texas. Some call Gurney old-fashioned. But last I checked, there was no expiration date on American coming-of-age stories.
Teenagers like Charlie are still acting like insufferable brats—a credit not only to Gurney’s writing but also to the 21-year-old Galvin’s spot-on portrayal—flipping off their older sisters (Kate McGonigle) and clashing with their pals (Pico Alexander) over the same girl (Juliet Brett). They’re still swearing at their appearance-obsessed, struggling-while dads-are-off-at-war moms (Carolyn McCormick, a perfect study in 1940s housewife repression). And they’re still flunking summer school and dallying with storied but off-limits town outcasts like “the Pig Woman” (a surprisingly, and thankfully, low-key Kristine Nielsen), a bohemian artist who takes him under her wing, feeds him unprocessed cheese, and teaches him that tomatoes are “a vulgar fruit” and that everyone has potential…“even Hitler.” You can understand how Charlie’s affection for this mother figure/Native American princess descendant throws off his casserole- and cookie-pudding-making mom.
If there’s a flaw in the story, it’s in the re-telling. Tony-winning scenic designer Michael Yeargan (The King and I, South Pacific) has provided an airy, blank-slate-style set—his specialty—the perfect canvas for Gurney’s memory play. Director Jim Simpson, who’s helmed many of the playwright’s recent (less traditional, more political) efforts at downtown’s Flea Theater, then projects stage directions on it…complete with click-clack manual typewriter noises. The writerly sounds just don’t work; even Simpson seems to realize that, since they eventually vanish (though the lines themselves don’t), and they’re less clever than annoying. A percussionist (Dan Weiner) positioned on the side of the stage punctuating selected lines with jazzy riffs and adding more subtle effects is much more mood-enhancing. It’s also very non-Gurney. Sometimes, even an unfamiliar element can be as memorable as anything else. B+