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Tea and Sympathy at the Artistic Home | Theater review

Despite what may have been revelatory six decades ago, Robert Anderson’s 1953 drama deals in shades of masculinity that now feel hopelessly outdated.

Photograph: courtesy of the Artistic Home
Kate Tummelson and Andrew Cutler in Tea and Sympathy at the Artistic Home

Inasmuch as it centers on a teenager who’s bullied because his classmates think he’s gay, Robert Anderson’s 1953 drama seems, at first blush, remarkably relevant to our own era. According to the 2009 National School Climate Survey, nearly nine out of ten LGBT students face harassment at school—an issue brought painfully to light by a recent spate of teen suicides. Anderson even touches on this subject: His young protagonist tries to hurt himself when he can’t perform with a prostitute.

But the play’s relevance is only superficial. Set at a boarding school in New England, it tells the story of Tom Lee, a sensitive soul who sticks out amid the ranks of crewcut conformity. A target of ridicule among his classmates, he finds understanding only with Laura Reynolds, the wife of his housemaster. Her husband is a paragon of 1950s manliness, but the marriage is unsatisfying both sexually and emotionally. Anderson’s defense of unconventional masculinity is admirable but hopelessly outdated. The message isn’t that it’s okay to be gay but that a man can be both sensitive and straight. This isn’t exactly news.

David New’s production is handsome, high-minded and dull. Andrew Cutler’s Tom is adequately guileless and Kate Tummelson’s Laura is adequately compassionate, but neither conveys the lonely desperation needed to enliven their roles. As Bill, Laura’s homophobic husband, Peter DeFaria allows a moment when we sense that all of his smugness and bluster is a defense against desires he can’t bear to name. This moment is the show’s single revelatory feature, but it’s too little, too late.

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