Entertainment » Theatre

The Cocktail Hour

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Nov 25, 2013
James Waterston in ’The Cocktail Hour,’ continuing through Dec. 15 at the Huntington Theater
James Waterston in ’The Cocktail Hour,’ continuing through Dec. 15 at the Huntington Theater  (Source:T. Charles Erickson)

The Huntington Theatre Company offers a handsomely mounted, but low-energy, production of A.R Gurney's 1988 play "The Cocktail Hour."

Gurney's play is a family comedy-drama centering around publisher John (James Waterston), his parents Bradley (Richard Poe) and Ann (Maureen Anderman) and sister Nina (Pamela J. Gray). As a sideline, John writes plays -- and he's written a doozy of a new work, based on his family and titled "The Cocktail Hour," presumably as a nod to his parents' fondness for social lubricant even now that their society days are waning.

The play wastes no time in letting us know that Bradley and Ann once lived higher on the hog; Bradley is complaining about how they no longer have servants to bring ice and other necessities almost as soon as the curtain has gone up. John takes his father's bitterly tinged musings with a trace of his own bitterness, which ratchets up as soon as Bradley flies off the handle at the very notion that his son has authored a play about their family. Knowing nothing about its content, Bradley labels the work an "attack," a sentiment that's echoed by Nina; this in itself speaks volumes about the family and its dynamics, but intimations of discord and dysfunction remain in the realm of the told rather than the demonstrated, and as the play unfolds like a velvet curtain -- lush dialogue in torrents, yet curiously theadbare and unengaging -- one begins to yearn for some deeper discord, some marrow in the sharply splintered bones that must be hidden in the family closets.

But nothing much happens; and when John makes mention of a scandalous secret that comes to light at the end of Act One, we can't help but lick our lips in anticipation, only to be cast down when the major reveal at the end of the real play's Act One turns out to be John's conviction that his father has never loved him.

As far as bombshells go, this is deeply unsurprising: Gurney has built the entire first act around the proposition that Bradley and Ann are utterly self-absorbed, and their children have responded accordingly -- John by becoming somewhat exhibitionistic (he tends to talk about his private parts, for one thing, and then there's the whole provocation about him turning his family into stage fodder). Nina, by contrast, takes more after Ann and Bradley: She's harder, less sympathetic, and more pragmatic. The scenes between brother and sister do deliver some heat, though even here there's more smoke than fire.

The problem may lie with "The Cocktail Hour" being Gurney's take on the "comedy of manners," but a comedy in an American vein. The drawing-room is more the province of Europe and England; Allen Moyer's wonderfully realized set (which features a staircase and offers glimpses into what seem to be well-appointed rooms adjacent to the main space) provides all the drawing-room one could want, but our family pangs and bickerings tend to focus more in the kitchen, where livelier plays such as "Good People" (produced at the Huntington last season) or "A Raisin in the Sun" take place, at least in part.

The play seems saturated with low-level contempt for its characters, too; their verbal sparring is replete with muffled insult and double-edged psychological impact that reveals plenty about the speaker. It feels heavy -- in the 1970s sense of the word, as in "Heavy, man," when it could use some of the sparkle that characterizes the drawing room comedy as treated by, say, Noel coward.

Then there's the notion of class itself, which perennially sits awkwardly with Americans. (We hate it when we don't love it, and often we love and hate the idea of class in the same moment.) Bradley and Ann certainly wish to belong to a higher class (and their children take note of this; John disparages his father for being a professional slacker clothed in the status of his wife's family money), but they don't really belong there. Their class aspirations are as vaporous as the angel's share of their current glass of spirits. But there's nothing especially gripping about this, at least not in 2013.

In the 1980s and into the 90s, it might have been more the case that faux American aristocrats occupied a distinct social strata. It's a fitting thing, but aggravating too, that the play itself seems to evaporate, leaving only traces behind of the work it feels like it wants to be -- or once was. Years after the Great Recession, and still in the grip of its lingering malaise, the social animal this play identifies and (once it's succumbed to its own program of self-anaesthetization) tags seems much rarer than it was forty years ago -- and that much more out of touch.

It's hard to connect with these characters (despite the magnificent performances Poe and Anderman turn in, the solid work Gray delivers, and the timely glints of furious energy Waterston brings to John) because they belong so much to the 1970s setting in which the play takes place. Their problems and their gripes seem trivial, and that might be as much a result of a cultural coarsening thanks to reality TV as it is the byproduct of economic diminishment. Whatever the reason, this play seems like something glimpsed under glass, rather than alive in the moment.

"The Cocktail Hour: continues through Dec. 15 at the BU Theater. For tickets and more information please visit www.huntingtontheatre.org

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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