"Summer" is a tale of two picnics. the family outings take place six years apart on a hillside overlooking Dublin.Playwright Hugh Leonard has skillfully arranged the events to create a study of shifting relationships in a medley of conversational fragments and dialogue sequences. Mr. Leonard even introduces a brief segment of soliloquies as his contrasted but uniformly appealing characters speak their thoughts. Brian Murray, the Charlie Now of Mr. Leonard's prize- winning "Da," has staged a beautifully composed and cadenced performance.
The gently endearing comedy that launches the Hudson Guild Theater's sixth season opens on a summer Sunday in 1968 as the picnickers gaze silently out at a semi-rural scene from the grassy knoll designed by Steven Rubin. The silence is short-lived. For soon the playwright begins weaving the counterpoint of conversational currents and cross- currents through which his characters reveal themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, their dreams and disappointments, their defenses and vulnerability.
Richard Halvey (David Canary), a modestly successful book dealer, is married to Trina (Swoosie Kurtz), who still basks in the long-ago glory of winning a local beauty contest. Stormy Loftus (Thomas Carlin), builds modest homes while his wife, Jan (Charlotte Moore), masks her humble beginnings with a posh accent and fills her life with committee work. Wallpaper salesman Jess White (James Greene) is marked for failure and the begetting of a large family by his fanatically religious wife. The Halveys' callow son (Victor Bevine) and the Loftus's pudgy daughter (Mia Dillon) complete the picnic group and supply the adolescent element.
"Summer" is a play less of action than of mood and character observation, set down with a relish for human comedy. Like good native Irish men and women, Mr. Leonard's characters come well equipped with the gift for comic retort, sharp exchange, and outlandish hyperbole. As the conversations shift from one couple or group to another, the spectator becomes increasingly involved in the lives of these not very important people, their concerns, and their probable futures.
The second of the play's two acts reunites the family friends in 1974. The hillside is slightly littered. The picturesque Celtic cross that once adorned the knoll has been carted off to a national museum. A wire-dangling telephone pole mars the clearing. A spread of luxury houses -- not built by Stormy -- has risen on the gentle slopes below the picnic ground.
The lives of the picnickers, too, have been a mixture of unexpected satisfactions and disturbing disappointments. In varying ways, they have progressed, or merely changed, or remained pretty much the same. Dancing on the greensward to a tape of "Sentimental Journey" creates a shared moment before the sun sets on this reunion of families on an Irish hillside.
The performance at the Hudson Guild is subtle, sensitive, and perceptive. The cast directed by Mr. Murray gives an extraordinary sense of immediacy, of people living out small fragments of their lives for the sympathetically attentive onlooker. There is kindness and serenity as well as sadness in this amiable comedy. Its pleasures are enhanced by Jane Greenwood's costumes and Dennis Parichy's lighting.