The Cocktail Hour, by A. R. Gurney. Directed by Phil Rice. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"My idea of fun doesn't include snide remarks about your family."
In his most personal, autobiographical play, the 1988 off-Broadway hit, "The Cocktail Hour," A.R. Gurney exposed his family to a detailed scrutiny that is almost unparalleled. This is a play about a play. In the play the character of John has written a play about his family, focused on his father but actually exposing truths about his mother that no one can abide, a play he hopes to produce in New York. His family is adamantly opposed to this and the conflict in this comedy threatens to tear apart a family that is already being held together by chewing gum that hasn't dried and hardened. It is a tribute to the WASP culture that so much truth can be repressed under the quise of faith in family values, Republican family values that would make Donald Trump seem nearly normal and acceptable to a Democrat like me.
Gurney is known for his plays that expose the class into which he was born in Buffalo, NY back in 1930. In this production at New Lebanon's The Theater Barn, good actors and a good director are giving this play a valued showing. Actors have the job of being someone else, someone they're not and it is the director's function to aid them in the process of morphing into these alternate identities. Reading the program it is clear that one of the actors has taken his own step into such an alternative and that new person is playing the character in the play who believes himself to be not the person he has been brought up to be, but is actually someone else, the result of an affair that has never been acknowledged.
At the end of the play this character accepts his identity as the son of the father he knows. However, as the actor plays it we can rest assured that he believes he may well be the man he has always suspected. The multiple edges in this portrayal are overwhelming. The actor is known here as Erik Derringer. He does a wonderful job displaying indifference in the role of John, switching to defensiveness and on to obstructionism. It is a complex performance of a complex role and in the end he is the winner. He has us.
Gurney promised his mother that this play would never be seen in Buffalo, New York while she was still alive and he kept that promise. However, he did open the show in NY and she did see it and she didn't like it. She went home to Buffalo where, apparently, they never spoke about it again. WASP family values are odd ones (listen to this Trump fans) and after the death of Gurney's father and of his wife's mother, the widow of one married the widower of the other creating the tightest family imaginable: a married couple whose own parents married one another. It makes the fictional aspects of this play seem like an opportunity missed.
Steve King, Colleen Lovett, Meg Dooley; photo: provided
The actor known as Erik Derringer
Playing opposite "Derringer" is Colleen Lovett as his older sister Nina. Lovett has the unenviable job of playing the most quixotic scene in the play when, without any noticeable provocation, she switches in mood from light and frothy to angry and accusative, becomes mulishly antagonistic and then conciliatory, all in the space of seven or eight lines. It is the most awkward writing in the play and somehow Lovett pulls it off leaving us with a sense that this woman is in need of the psychiatric appraisal her brother cannot get from his own shrink. In the second act of the play she is nearly giddy most of the time, unveiling yet another odd aspect of the character. Again, she makes it all work within the context of the play and that is a miracle.
The miracle worker is the director Phil Rice who maneuvers, engineers and conducts his players through the oddness of this dramedy. He keeps the show alive and very real in spite of the awkward lapses in the writing. It is a mighty achievement keeping the audience interested in this intellectual form of drawing room comedy without a comedy basis. There are laughs, to be sure, but they are giggles rather than guffaws and they are always at some character's expense.
The parents in the picture are played by Steve King and Meg Dooley. Well dressed and well groomed they are the perfect picture of Gurney's WASP environment. King is full of mighty bluster, making emotional demands of a son who has little regard for him most of the time. Dooley is the abstract of emotionlessness, giving Mother Ann an almost unreal presence, a ghostly essence in real corpulent time. Ann would rather have things pleasant and easy but her brood have all taken positions during this family cocktail time and even the missing son, Jigger - clearly named for his father's favorite bar implement - disrupts the congeniality she would like to see displayed. King plays his role with an utter reality that sometimes gives the play less than it needs, but when he gets worked up he is wonderful. Dooley is almost too distracted at times and when she suddenly confesses everything John wants to hear, expects to hear, Ann is perfectly unconvincing and Dooley's character throws a hefty monkey-wrench into the mix. I liked her work in this play as much, if not more, than anything else she has done in the past several seasons.
Abe Phelps set is handsome and well-appointed with props that give it more than merely basic reality on the small stage at the Theater Barn. Alison Gensmer's costumes reek of honesty and a 1988 sensibility. Allen Phelps lighting is forthright and illuminating.
It's unlikely that most of us will have lots of opportunities to see this play and so thanks goes to the Theater Barn for presenting it in such well-considered way. It is not likely to ever be the public's favorite Gurney play, most prefer "Love Letters" or "The Dining Room," but it gives us all a chance to witness the world from which Gurney emerged, a playwright on a mission no less honest and believable than Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill's missions. This play is Gurney's version of "Long Day's Journey. . ." or "The Glass Menagerie" or "Death of a Salesman." it is that personal and we all need to know what lies beneath the surface of fine writers. This is just such an opportunity.
The Cocktail Hour plays through September 25 at the Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go on line at www.theatrebarn.com