A playwright is really asking for it when he creates, in a semiautobiographical work, a conflict whose glorious resolution is the writing of the play itself. This is what A.R. Gurney has done in What I Did Last Summer, a coming-of-age comedy about a 14-year-old Buffalo boy’s discovering his “potential” over the course of a few months in 1945. (Gurney was also 14 that summer.) The playwright’s stand-in is Charlie Higgins, a son of the local Wasp gentry, estivating on the Canadian side of Lake Erie during that last season of World War II with his mother, Grace, and his sister, Elsie. (His father, “cooped up on a destroyer escort” in the Pacific, remains ominously unheard from.) Bored with household chores and with studying Latin to make up for failing it in spring, Charlie finds himself working for 25 cents an hour — plus free lessons in art and self-actualization — for Anna Trumbull, the local scandal. Once part of the same Wasp elite, Anna, generally called the Pig Woman, has descended into a life of creative rebellion (as she sees it romantically) or charismatic eccentricity (as Grace sees it worriedly). There are many rumors about Anna: She is part Tuscarora Indian, she was the mistress of a wealthy doctor, she is “an artist manqué,” she doesn’t wear underwear. Sadly, only the last is false.
As long as he keeps to the habits and prejudices of his class, Gurney is entertaining. The lightness of the social comedy almost excuses the self-consciously weak dramatization, which includes direct address from several characters (“This is a play about me”), undisguised exposition (“Here’s what’s happening”) and a predictable rhythm of crisis and revelation that makes it seem as if he wrote with a stopwatch and a manual nearby. In its own way, this moth-eaten, presentational style is enjoyable and convincing, bringing to life the pleasures and disappointments of the time it’s set in, and the presumably authentic lingo to go with them. (Charlie, giving his sister the finger, tells her to “Perch and rotate, Elsie. Perch, and systematically rotate, please.”) But this surface verisimilitude is generally left untethered to anything accurate at a deeper level. At least in the script, Charlie, despite Anna’s attempts to find the painter, sculptor, weaver, or poet in him, has no more artistic potential than any other twerpy teen, nor any convincing interest in discovering it except to the degree it might further annoy his mother or make him interesting to Bonny, a girl he’d like to date.
So as the play focuses more on Anna’s supposed opening of Charlie’s soul, it becomes less convincing; its narrative flimsiness seems less excusable and more and more like a dodge. Worse, the comedy structure is unable to absorb the implications of the darker observations that keep popping up — for instance Anna’s potentially Miss Brodie–like problem:
CHARLIE: I flunked Latin, I don’t have my driver’s license, Bonny treats me like I’m her little brother. Sometimes I think I’ll never be a man.
ANNA: Good heavens. Being a man or a woman isn’t any of those things. It’s simply realizing your potential.
CHARLIE: You think I’ve got some?
ANNA: I think everyone does. Even Hitler.
Is that a laugh line? The play seems confused about how seriously it wants to be taken, as if its autobiographical impulses — which is to say its complications and real confusions — needed comic tempering lest they end up revealing too much. The result is slightly smarmy and slightly obtuse, especially in the disappointing fizzle of a climactic confrontation between Grace and Anna, which after so much discussion of art and spirit turns on a mere romantic indiscretion. So much for Faust; all we get is a catfight.
The original production of What I Did Last Summer, at Circle Rep in 1983, apparently suffered from backstage disruptions (the director disappeared) and indifferent casting. The Signature’s production, directed by Jim Simpson — who has staged a number of recent Gurney plays at his home base, the Flea — does not have those problems. In some ways, Simpson is too present: He has somehow sought to decorate the play’s minimalism with additional minimalism. A drummer sits with his kit downstage right, sometimes illustrating the action, sometimes accompanying it like a film score, and sometimes providing literal sound effects or even rim shots. Meanwhile, Simpson literalizes the play’s embarrassing self-referentiality by turning the script, as projected onto a backdrop, into the main design element. (The set is by Michael Yeargan; the projections are by John Narun.) Stage directions, important words and lines, even the cell-phone announcement appear, crossfade, and reconfigure constantly behind the actors — a distraction, like the drumming, that you eventually tune out, proving their needlessness in the first place.
But Simpson has done terrific work with the actors. The artificial Wasp world of the Higgins family and its community is slightly overacted, in a bright sitcom way, as if Three’s Company were doing a special flashback episode. The cleverness of this becomes evident when we understand that Anna’s world, however outré it may seem to the others, is acted more realistically. I am shocked to say that the main source of this realism is Kristine Nielsen, that usually bug-eyed, if hilarious, scenery chewer. Here she’s doing a half-Nielsen. She doesn’t strangle the role with shtick, but gives us enough wacko fizz to help us understand who the woman is, all the while offsetting that with a more detailed and disciplined — and therefore more moving — portrait of a failed artist. Her Anna is the kind of woman whose intelligence and entitlement pushed her too quickly over the containments that might have channeled her eccentricities more usefully. (She’s a cousin of the Melissa Gardner character in Gurney’s Love Letters, lately played by Mia Farrow.) It’s surprisingly unbearable to find her, in her last scene, resigned to the hell of normalcy, if she can even achieve it.
The play is not ultimately about her, though: It’s about Charlie. The totally adorable Noah Galvin (who will star as the gay son on The Real O’Neals on ABC this fall) beautifully connects the two worlds in which the boy operates, and the different acting styles demanded by each. With his family, he’s petulant and sarcastic in an almost contemporary way; with Anna, he’s as searching and unguarded as the young hero of a problem play like Tea and Sympathy. If only What I Did Last Summer could manage the same integration! Alas, it never makes the case that its two halves are even related, let alone that they add up to something important. And if the proof is supposed to be what we’re seeing onstage — “I tried photography in boarding school. And took up writing in college. And finally, last summer, I wrote this play,” Charlie says — well, I’m not sure the boy learned enough of a lesson from Anna’s sacrifice.
What I Did Last Summer is at the Signature Theatre through June 7.