"The Cocktail Hour"
Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven
The A. R. Gurney plays are, predictably, treasures. Focusing on the people of his own background--the upper-class WASPs who are caught in a changing world—he gets it just right. His sure touch, infused with his critical (but affectionate and amused) view, never fails.
Nor does his touch fail this time around in “The Cocktail Hour,” now on Long Wharf Theatre’s main stage. This piece, set in the mid-70s, is strongly biographical, it would seem, as a playwright struggles with his demons—notably members of his own family. As the eldest son, John returns to the family home, seeking his parents’ permission to stage his new play. His play, not surprisingly, is called “The Cocktail Hour” (a clever Gurney gimmick giving the sense of a play within a play within a play within a play).
“The Cocktail Hour” is appropriately named, as it focuses on a daily event which had become a ritual in WASP society. The family converges in the hour after work, and before dinner, to converse, relax, and enjoy mixed alcoholic drinks. In fact, members depend on that daily ritual to get through their lives. They may or may not have been alcoholics, but denial is strong. As the mother says, each time her glass is refilled, “Just a splash,” denying that she is guzzling heartily.
At the same time, the parents in “The Cocktail Hour,” with their limited views and sense of entitlement, are posed against the son, who has moved into the real world. They are uptight members of a class which abhors publicity and fears disclosure of their innermost selves. “If you don’t do it, you won’t get your name in the paper—and that’s a good thing,” says his mother. “”If you name is in the paper, people think you are rich and will rob you.”
“The Cocktail Hour” is darker than other Gurney plays, with more emphasis on angst than on humor, as family skeletons come out of the closet. After the bluff, hearty opening scenes between father and son (with emphasis on convivial drinking), it is clear that this father has little use for this son, that he favors the younger brother.
Humor focuses on the sister Nina, who does not share her parents’ horror of John’s play. On the contrary, she is disappointed that she is depicted as a minor character. “A supporting role? Why do I always get the supporting role in every one’s life?” she wails. Ann Talman, who portrays Nina with broad comic strokes, provides the much-needed levity in a poignant tale. But under Kim Rubinstein’s able direction, all four actors bring the family to life—John Cunningham and Mary Beth Peil, as the parents respectively, and Rob Campbell as the son. Michael Yeargan’s set design and Pat Collins’ lighting enhance the sense of a family isolated from the outer world.
In all, this Long Wharf production of “The Cocktail Party” is an affecting portrait of a time, a family, and a society.
-- Irene Backalenick
Jan. 19, 2007