The Cocktail Hour
Our window into the world of the play opens and closes with the pre-dinner ritual of everyone catching up with each other over cocktails. John (James Waterston) has returned for a visit to the well-appointed Buffalo manse (beautifully rendered by scenic designer Allen Moyer and lit by Paul Palazzo) of his parents Bradley (Richard Poe) and Ann (Maureen Anderman) to break the news that he has written a new play about them. It does not go over well as they expect it will reveal only negative things from the point of view of their less-favored son. "Pop" withholds his permission for it to go public and Mother tries to convince John to write a book instead. (Not coincidentally, the title of John's play is The Cocktail Hour and Pop doesn't like that either.) Rather than feeling relieved, older sister Nina (Pamela J. Gray) is nonplussed upon discovering how little she figures into the manuscript.
Set in the 1970s, Gurney's largely autobiographical play is both laugh-out-loud funny and poignant with authentic dialogue and a realistic scenario. Huntington darling Maria Aitken directs, setting the right tone and pace so that the banter pops and the barbs hit their targets. The cast clicks, conveying the chemistry of people who are ill at ease with the knowledge that they're supposed to love one another, and can't quite grasp the practice of it. The parents are old schoolPop is a master of the universe type who laments the changes (read: downfall) in society, while Ann is mistress of the household with only one ever-changing staff person left to supervise. Poe mixes gruff bluster with self-absorption to create a character struggling with being more than a few steps behind the times and unable to accept the absence of one son (the unseen Jigger) at the expense of the one who is present.
Anderman has the ideal bearing and attitude which make her seem born to play women like Ann. Far from warm and fuzzy, her cool exterior gradually melts just enough to share some long-held secrets with John who craves greater intimacy and attention. Part of Ann's problem is her inability to understand her children or give them what they need. When Nina talks about her desire to go to Cleveland for two years to work with seeing-eye dogs because of her instinctive connection with animals, Anderman's silent reaction is priceless. Like her character in John's play, Gray has less stage time than the others, but her role is not insignificant and she communicates a lot in a short span. Her feelings of hopelessness take the form of huffs and puffs, but Gray also powerfully delivers a tirade to demonstrate that she's on to John, even if he doesn't know the first thing about her.
Waterston makes it look easy to be the center of attention, even though he has to adjust his style to John's mood changes as the play progresses, as well as within each of the three relationships. He is more or less docile and conciliatory in the first act as he tries not to ruffle his father's feathers and win his approval. Hoping to contain himself, John abstains from alcohol, but that is anathema to Bradley and makes him uncomfortable. In act two, John has to go with the flow of cocktails, releasing his anger and inhibitions and grudgingly sliding into the persona the family expects him to bear.
One does not have to be a WASP to recognize these characters and the intricate choreography they employ to dance around each other and the highly charged issues in their family history. Although John and Nina are in their forties, The Cocktail Hour is, to a degree, a coming of age story as they try to break away from the hold of their parents and pursue their dreams. They want their parents to understand and accept their actions, but ultimately it is John's understanding of his parents that will give new meaning to his play and a satisfying ending to Gurney's.
The Cocktail Hour, performances through December 15 at Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org. Written by A.R. Gurney, Directed by Maria Aitken; Scenic Design, Allen Moyer; Costume Design, Candice Donnelly; Lighting Design, Paul Palazzo; Sound Design, John Gromada; Casting, Alaine Alldaffer; Production Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen; Stage Manager, Jeremiah Mullane Cast (in order of appearance): Richard Poe, James Waterston, Maureen Anderman, Pamela J. Gray