When 14-year-old Charlie (Noah Galvin) starts doing odd jobs for the town’s scandalous art teacher Anna Trumbull (Kristine Nielsen), in “What I Did Last Summer,” she agrees to pay him 25 cents an hour, plus something far more valuable: “I will root out your talent, where it lies.”
That proves to be more difficult than she expected in A.R. Gurney’s knowing and affectionate coming-of-age comedy set during World War II, which is being given a deliciously acted production at the Signature.
Charlie is an obvious stand-in for the playwright (who was himself 14 years old during the summer of 1945), and Gurney’s particular talent was indeed rooted out, eventually. It’s nice to see some long-overdue attention being paid to a playwright whose reputation may overlook how broad the scope of his work and how deep its craft. “What I Did Last Summer” is deliberately simple and old-fashioned, but it is also deceptively so.
This is the season of A.R. Gurney, age 84, who earlier this year saw a revival of “Love Letters” on Broadway, and continues as playwright in residence at the Signature, where “What I Did Last Summer” is the second of three productions. Signature revived “The Wayside Motor Inn,” and will later this summer feature a new Gurney play, “Love and Money.”
Yet, little more than a decade ago, Gurney thought his playwriting career had died. He thanks the Off-Off Broadway theater, The Flea, and its artistic director Jim Simpson, for its rejuvenation. Simpson, who this month retires from the Flea, is the director of “What I Did Last Summer.” His production of this 1983 play is literally off-beat: Drummer Dan Weiner sits off to the side, adding an extra drum to the show’s recorded 1940’s music, supplying sound effects (such as a car door closing), and even providing rim shots for some of the punch lines.
It’s not the only unusual directorial additions: On an almost bare stage, save for a bench and a shopping bag or two, the stage directions are projected as if typed (we hear a typing sound) on the backdrop.
But these attention-getting oddities have a purpose, which becomes clearer by the end of the play.
“What I Did Last Summer” is about an adolescent who rebels against his mother and sister, while they are vacationing in the well-to-do summer colony on the Canadian shores of Lake Erie that they visit every summer. Their father is away at war in the Pacific, which adds extra strain on a family already dealing with the normal stresses of adolescence. To assert his independence, he takes a job with the local outcast, whom everybody calls the Pig Woman, because her cottage is a former pigsty, bequeathed to her by a doctor who was her lover.
“I like the name,” she tells Charlie. “It sets me off. It makes me different. Does that frighten you?”
Part Native American, she is self-consciously bohemian — ranting on against grass lawns, and the attitudes and activities of the “leisure class” into which Charlie was born — and she teaches Charlie about art and about life.
“What I Did Last Summer” is also about the making of art…and an artist. One of those publicly typed stage directions spells it out: “Throughout this play, we should be aware of things in the process of being fabricated or made: the characters by actors; the setting by the manipulation of simple scenic elements; the play itself by its obviously traditional and presentational form.”
Each of the characters addresses the audience directly, telling us they think that the play is about them, or should be. And in one way, they are all correct, thanks in part to the performances. Kristine Nielsen was most recently on Broadway as the wacky mother in You Can’t Take It With You, and gave an equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking performance as Sonia in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Her Anna offers a toned-down, credible eccentric. Noah Galvin, who gave an impressive performance as the goofy, wise-cracking Dusty in The Burnt Part Boys in 2010 at age 16, must be 21 now, but he plays a 14-year-old to perfection. Yes, he’s showy and self-dramatizing – but isn’t that precisely how many teenagers behave? Galvin is about to star as a gay teen on an ABC TV comedy created by Dan Savage called The Real O’Neals, so catch him live while you can.
Juliet Brett is terrific as Bonny, the object of Charlie’s affection, who sees herself as way more sophisticated than we do. Pico Alexander portrays Charlie’s friend Ted, who is the son of a groundskeeper, and is a rambunctious teen, but notices that he is already of an age where he’s being treated differently by the upper-class residents of the resort town. Kate McGonigle is the older sister, who starts off snooty and ends up close to heroic. Carolyn McCormick is spot-on as Grace, Charlie’s mother, struggling to stay on top of her world, who turns out to be far more complex than we were expecting — she herself was once Anna’s student. In some ways, the play really is about her; she is also the stand-in for Gurney, a parent of adolescents looking back at his own childhood, and finding it exasperating, and cringe-worthy, and sweet and amusing.
What I Did Last Summer
At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
By A. R. Gurney; directed by Jim Simpson; sets by Michael Yeargan; costumes by Claudia Brown; lighting by Brian Aldous; sound by Janie Bullard; projections by John Narun; wig and hair design by Dave Bova
Cast: Pico Alexander (Ted), Juliet Brett (Bonny), Noah Galvin (Charlie), Carolyn McCormick (Grace), Kate McGonigle (Elsie) and Kristine Nielsen (Anna Trumbull).
Running time: 2 hours including one intermission.
Ticket price: $25
What I Did Last Summer is scheduled to run through June 7.