'The Dining Room' serves up culture with class, wit

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There's more to anticipate than dessert in most dining rooms. The Dining Room (PBS, Friday, 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) proves there can be drama, poignance, wit, and truth.

This ''Great Performances'' play by A.R. Gurney Jr. comes to television after a successful 18-month run Off Broadway and 43 productions by resident theaters across the country.

''The Dining Room'' uses a versatile cast of six to perform more than 50 parts as it undertakes a seriocomic study of the rituals of a seemingly vestigial species - the Northeastern WASP - an important part of the American upper middle class.

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The superb actors - Frances Sternhagen, John Shea, Jeanne Ruskin, Remak Ramsay, Pippa Pearthree, and W.H. Macy - portray a wide variety of characters ranging from a grandmother to a clutch of five-year-olds, with a varied series of men, women, and adolescents between. It is as much an anthropological study as it is an episodic melodrama. If the imaginative Margaret Mead had written a play about WASPs, it probably would have been much like ''The Dining Room.''

Produced by the Program Development Company, directed by Allan Goldstein (TV) and David Trainer (stage), ''The Dining Room'' serves up an entrancing sampling of dishes, which include the private activities and public customs of a series of American families. Taken in its entirety, ''The Dining Room'' also constitutes a serious survey of a vanishing culture in its native habitat.

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