A.R. Gurney has a knack for writing formally inventive plays that are, ultimately, rather conservative. Love Letters, which recently had a run on Broadway, is entirely epistolary, but the story it tells—about nostalgia, about the passage of time—is affecting but conventional. Now the Signature is reviving What I Did Last Summer, in which many of the stage directions are projected behind the actors, so as it begins we read, “Before curtain: Music: an old Bing Crosby recording such as ‘Swinging on a Star’ ” before we hear any crooning. Props are used only when miming is inconvenient. The fourteen-year-old Charlie (Noah Galvin) walks onstage and announces, “This is a play about me when I was fourteen.” His mother, Grace (Carolyn McCormick), adds, “This is also a play about me,” before hesitating, “And if it isn’t, it should be.” And Elsie (Kate McGonigle), Charlie’s put-upon sister, will later complain, “I’ll tell you one thing this play is not about. It’s not about me.”
Despite this metatheatrical playfulness, What I Did Last Summer is a cozy and familiar story: around the end of World War II, Charlie and his family are staying in a house on a summer colony on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie. Charlie’s father is in the Pacific, and he divides his time between childish goofiness and playing grown-up, between mooning his mother and sister and driving a car without a license. He gets work doing odd jobs for Anna Trumbell (Kristine Nielsen), the “Pig Woman” known for her eccentricity and misanthropy. She pays Charlie in art lessons, lets him drink a glass of wine at lunch, and more generally offers him the kind of encouragement and freedom that can be attractive to a boy who is not quite as old as he thinks.
Mr. Galvin is terrific as Charlie; he has a nice unselfconscious, physical looseness about him that is perfectly suited to a person on the cusp of maturity. And Ms. McCormick leaves most of Grace beneath the surface; a former student of Anna’s, she has eschewed rebellion for a conventional life and now must perform the role of the ‘forties housewife without betraying her regret to her family.
Like Love Letters, What I Did Last Summer is deceptive in its simplicity; there is nothing new or revelatory about the script, but there is a warmth to it that is not common, either, an understanding of adolescent angst that never devolves into juvenile melodrama or adult condescension. Late in the play, Bonny (Juliet Brett), a friend of Charlie’s, tells the audience, “Oh God, I’m lying more and more. Is this what it means to become a woman?” This is precisely Mr. Gurney’s tone: light, funny, with a twinkle of wisdom, and an itching feeling of the sadness that is soon to come.
What I Did Last Summer runs through June 7th at the Irene Diamond Stage. 480 W. 42nd Street New York, NY. 2 hours. One intermission.