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Who Let the Preps Out? 

The Dining Room pays homage to a vanishing culture

A. R. Gurney is the patron saint of preps. In another lifetime I went to his plays as if they were church. His characters -- named Liz-boo, Winkie, Brewster and Standish -- were more relevant than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John when it came to telling the gospel of old colonial homes, khaki pants and cardigans, not to mention the people who inhabit them.

More recently, the kind of nostalgic trip that Gurney sparks through dining rooms from Virginia to New Hampshire seems more like a high school reunion of almost-forgotten acquaintances. Or as his characters suggest, an anthropological study of the vanishing culture of conservative upper middle-class protestants from the northeastern United States. The Dining Room is just such a Gurney journey, looking into another culture from another time with all the intrigue and sense of discovery as a National Geographic special from a lost continent.

Dining rooms are not inherently preppy -- or protestant, or upper middle-class, or Eastern for that matter. But they are getting harder to find. When Gurney wrote his play in the late '70s, the culture was already immersed in TV dinners and fast food, and when you can find a dining room these days, it's more likely used to fold laundry, type a term paper or simply hide out from more heavily trafficked household routes.

The high quality of the BlueBards Production Company at the Air Force Academy is a welcome surprise. That an ensemble of cadets who at best were just barely born when The Preppy Handbook was published could so completely capture this world is a tribute to the craft of acting. The 10-member ensemble takes on anywhere from four to seven characters a piece in an intricately woven fabric of vignettes, overlapping and crossing paths without ever really connecting in terms of plot or character links. The two-act play is made of dozens of these vignettes, ceaselessly leading from one to another, catching a larger story at a finite crisis point, keeping our attention and building a cumulative sense of our investment in the story strands entangling on the stage.

More often than not, the birthright of the dining room table, which is the set's centerpiece, is more evident in the absence of its function than in its employment. One family after another dances around the tradition delicately enough to clearly outline it for us without ever stepping into it. One or two scenes, however, do help to establish the Old Guard ground rules such as a father's advice to his young son that "people who make smart-guy wisecracks like that don't usually eat in dining rooms."

The cast moves effortlessly through characters diverse in age and era though uniform enough in aspect to be cut from the same extended family. The ensemble shows remarkable dexterity and range in animating characters from young toddlers to elderly curmudgeons, from the turn of one end of the 20th century toward the closing at the other end.

If there are any weak links in the cast the audience never knows, thanks to uniformly strong acting and a subtle approach and style that emphasizes the strength of the whole tapestry rather than the unique qualities of an unraveling thread, an ugly knot or a brilliant patch that steals focus from the larger picture. Director John O'Neill has orchestrated one of the strongest ensembles to grace local stages, and although it's hard to judge the value of your admission ticket, at under $10, this production is an unbeatable bargain.

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