Nov. 23--BOSTON -- The Huntington's production of A.R. Gurney's "The Cocktail Hour" is so well done you may find yourself shortening any upcoming visit home for the holidays.
While most families are not captured in such a bitingly funny snapshot, it's impossible not to pick up a quirk or two while spending decades with the same group of people. You may not personally have problems with servants, guilt about old family money or regrets stemming from overly long pre-dinner cocktail hours. But somewhere in the bloodline, many families harbor unrealized dreams; along with one parent who is rarely right but can't stand to be wrong, and another who tries to steer the family into calm waters with the skill of a drunken captain on the bridge of a cruise ship.
Gurney's dialogue is quick and self-mocking in a play that is his closest to autobiographical. He pokes fun at everything from capricious small-town newspaper critics who don't even know what they like (ouch, thanks) to his own self-centeredness, not to mention complicity in driving the family help crazy.
In the pen of a less-skilled playwright -- or cast -- "The Cocktail Hour" could be flat and mean-spirited. But Gurney manages to get at the complexities of family life, and the actors cast by Alaine Alldaffer breathe life into that with tone, timing, facial expressions and body language.
There are no bad guys in this family, but there are no good guys either.
The play is set in Buffalo, N.Y., in the 1970s, with eldest son, John, coming to the nightly cocktail hour, seeking his family's permission to stage a play about them. Their reactions immediately set their characters: father Bradley protests that if anything is made public, it should be only good things; mother Nina suggests John put it all in a book, a quieter medium that can sit unread on a shelf; sister Ann, harboring resentment that she is the good girl who stayed in Buffalo for her parents, complains she doesn't have a big enough role. The family's second, and favored, son simply stays away.
As the patriarch, Bradley, Richard Poe is commanding from the moment he lumbers onto the stage, stiff-legged with age and directing John (James Waterston) exactly where to put the silver tray of alcohol and other cocktail makings. Poe plays Bradley's hale-and-hearty, meet-you-for-golf personality easily, but it is the character's insecurities and doubts that show what a fine actor Poe is. It takes skill to convincingly portray weaknesses that your character is trying to hide.
Waterston's John seems diminished as he struggles to stay afloat in the waves of bravado he father is giving off. But not to worry, there is a reckoning coming, several actually, in which we see that playwright John can not only hold his own, but also churn these choppy family waters.
Nina (Pamela J. Gray) and her daughter Ann (Maureen Anderman) are two of a kind -- steel whips in thin-blonde bodies, who influence primarily through corrosive wheedling. But that's just the undertone. These women could chat you up nicely, and Ann's dream is to leave her husband at home while she works with seeing-eye dogs. Who doesn't like dogs?
This play looks great. Scenic designer Allen Moyer creates a richly detailed space, bolstered by Paul Palazzo's creamy, warm lighting. One note: The back wall could use stiffening so the pictures on it don't waver as characters use the stairs.
Director Maria Aitken deserves credit for molding these Huntington Theatre alumni into a flawless unit.
On stage, Waterston's character admits his play has no real plot, as is the case in "The Cocktail Hour," where what happens is not nearly as important as how or why. It is just another truth hiding in this Russian nesting doll of a play where every layer that is pulled off reveals more.
It felt like the second act dragged a little, but there were no obvious problems with the pacing. Perhaps it is just that Gurney has written a confessional, and penance is rarely quick.
Note: Playwright A.R. Gurney will talk about his work with WBUR's Bob Oakes following the 2 p.m. performance on Dec. 1. The session is free for those attending the show.
(c)2013 the Cape Cod Times (Hyannis, Mass.)
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