Truth in a Martini

The play's the thing in 'The Cocktail Hour'

Rhonda Hallquist, a Live Theatre Workshop actor who has appeared onstage several times this season, makes her LTW directing debut with A.R. Gurney's 1988 off-Broadway hit The Cocktail Hour. This four-person comedy of manners takes place during the titular "hour": a sacred time right before dinner that WASP-y New England couple Ann (Carlisle Ellis) and Bradley (Michael Woodson) reserve for sipping martinis.

When grown-up son John (Chris Moseley) joins them but refuses an alcoholic beverage, his decision is met with chagrin. And with good reason. John has come to dinner not to reminisce or reconnect, but to ask his parent's permission to produce a play he has recently written: a play called The Cocktail Hour.

John admits that the play is based on their family and "cuts pretty close to home." Conservative businessman Bradley is outraged and refuses his permission. With amusing patrician reserve and entitlement, Ann wonders why John can't write a book instead (books are "quieter"). When sister Nina (Shanna Brock) arrives, she's annoyed that her part in the play is so small.

The play-within-a-play motif enables playwright Gurney and the LTW cast to have lots of fun making meta-jokes about the theater and the play itself. Ellis and Woodson have a grand old time acting out Ann and Bradley's fear of the stage. Bradley sputters that "No one goes to the theater anymore!" while Ann laments that liberal theater-reviewers will misjudge them: "They think we're all Republicans and all superficial and all alcoholics," she says (only the last one is true, she insists).

Part of the joke is that these barbs at theater are coming from two charming, experienced actors, who are skillfully milking laughs out the audience at every opportunity. Ann and Bradley's very resistance to the "vulgarity" of being portrayed onstage is part of what makes them such plum parts.

Indeed, The Cocktail Hour is an appropriate piece for an actor to direct, as the play basically consists of four actors enjoyably slinging witty barbs at each other. Ann and Bradley, in particular, provide a great comic showcase for charismatic veteran actors Ellis and Woodson.

The parts of John and Nina are less vibrant and so, perhaps inevitably, are the actors playing them. As John, Moseley is a competent but not extraordinary straight man to the antics of the others. As Nina, Brock has moments of great charm, but her performance is marred by the odd, pseudo-British accent she lilts in and out of (why, oh why, do actors succumb to this tic when playing "old-fashioned" or "snooty rich" characters?) and by her overplaying of Nina's temper tantrums.

John admits that the play he has written "doesn't have much of a plot" and this is of course true of the actual play as well: There's just lots of sharp, knowing conversation that occasionally ventures into deeper waters but never goes too far. Regular LTW set designers Richard and Amanda Gremel have set up a well-appointed living room, from which the action of the play never moves. Dinner keeps getting delayed, and it's clear from the start that as soon as dinner is ready, the play will end.

Hallquist smartly keeps the actors on their feet as much as possible so the energy level can stay up; there's even a bit of inspired physical comedy blocking in the second act, when John chases his mother around the stage, demanding to know "The Secret" of his childhood.

However, nothing comes to light that is particularly dark or distressing. The structure of "clever, privileged people sitting around drinking and revealing family secrets" is one that holds together many American theater classics, but Gurney doesn't take his play to the dark places of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Instead, he keeps the tone closer to that of Philip Barry's iconic 1939 living-room comedy-drama The Philadelphia Story.

The anachronistic style feels deliberate. John, a clear stand-in for playwright Gurney, even laments his attachment to the old-fashioned medium of theater. Despite tweaking the nose of the comedy of manners genre, Gurney feels pretty saddled to that genre's limitations; he's not exactly attempting anything radical.

Gurney admitted that the play is autobiographical (he promised his parents it wouldn't be performed in his hometown of Buffalo till after their death), and his dilemma as a playwright is of course John's: Does he dig for the "truth" about his family, or does he stay quiet for the sake of family harmony?

One gets the sense, by the time the play closes, that John/Gurney is not actually very interested in shocking revelations. Just as John teases and provokes his parents but is ultimately loving to them, Gurney pokes fun at Bradley and Ann's privileged, old-fashioned way of life. But his genteel, living-room farce seems like just the kind of thing they would actually enjoy very much.

The character of Nina sums it up when she tells John that he's actually writing the play because their father is ill and probably dying. I'd suggest that The Cocktail Hour's dark secret is that John/Gurney actually loves his parents very much. What gives the play its slight melancholy edge is the sense that those parents and their way of life are on the way out. And while that way of life is satirized, it's clear that The Cocktail Hour was ultimately written to celebrate and not to ridicule.