Monday, September 21, 2009

Charming Cocktail

The Vagabond Players' new production of A.R. Gurney's The Cocktail Hour is a delightful romp through family rivalry and the mores of the American Protestant bourgeoisie.
The simple plot concerns a playwright, John (played by Blaise d'Ambrosio), who returns to his family home with the unwelcome news that he has just finished an autobiographical play about the family. Entitled "The Cocktail Hour," the play immediately becomes an object of fear, suspicion, and outrage among the family members: the domineering father, Bradley (played with suave aristocratic charm by Denis Latkowski), the sympathetic but anxious mother, Ann (played with an earth-mother solidity by Joan Crooks), and the hysterical sister, Nina (played with scenery-chewing gusto by Janise Whelan.) As the family progresses through its own cocktail hour, they trade quips about incompetent servants, dinner with the Episcopal bishop, the various charitable boards they control, and T.S. Eliot and other literary stars of yore. The banter thinly conceals their lament for a genteel Protestant culture that has vanished and their anxiety that John's play will open up a few family secrets they want to protect from the prying eyes of the public.
Roy Hammond's direction keeps the traffic moving smoothly as the characters bounce around the Antiques Roadshow decor of the set. The direction can't completely compensate for the limits of the script. At the end of each act, Gurney tries to transcend the cocktail chit-chat by having a man-to-man confrontation between the domineering father and the hazier son. But the climax of these disputes is simply melodrama. At the end of the first act, the son cries out to the father: "I think you've never loved me!" (Lights out. Intermission.) At the end of the second act, when an unconvincing reconciliation between father and son has been concocted, the father cries out that the revamped play (in his favor) should be called "The Good Father." (Ugh! Lights out. Stage call.) It is the funny yet moving portrait of a vanishing Protestant suburban elite, with its cocktail napkins, snobbish clubs, literary culture, and preoccupation with status that is the play at its strongest.
The real heroes of the evening are the set designer (Tony Colavito), the lighting designer (Bob Dover), and the unnamed sound designer. The set is an overstuffed living room filled with dated bourgeois artifacts that exude a nostalgia for an earlier, more glamorous past. The lamee curtains are too much Fred-and-Ginger; the walls groan under too many paintings; the arranged flowers are too perfect. An omnipresent blue light bathes the entire scene in a calm that is preternatural and that doesn't survive the increasingly anxious assault over the new script. The background music, a thousand-strings medley of show tunes from earlier times, sets the stage for the travails of a family lost in the alcoholic glow of a more glorious age.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Mercy at the Strand

The Strand Theater's new production of Neil La Bute's The Mercy Seat is well worth a trip to their intimate theater in the North Station district.
The taut play features two lovers who happen to find themselves in the mistress's New York apartment at the moment of the 9/11 attack. The attack could permit Ben Harcourt, the male paramour who should have been at his office in the World Trade Center at the moment of the attack, to escape from a marriage that has gone sour. He dreams of fleeing with his mistress (who just happens to be his boss) and restarting life under a new identity. It could also permit the female paramour, Abby Prescott, to flee a job she constantly squawks about and start a new, more romantic life. The choices aren't simple, however, as marital duty and moral realism start to dawn on the stranded love duo.
In La Bute's usual manner, the discussion of these strange alternatives quickly degenerates into an obscenity-laced row about sexual harassment, family duty, romantic disenchantment, personal obsessions, and civic duty toward fellow citizens.
Ably directed by Danielle Young, Kasey Arnold and M. Brett Rohrer bring this one-act diatribe to life as they permit the emotions of their quarreling characters to rub each other raw. The bitter dance of recrimination and possible escape convincingly escalates in intensity until the play arrives at its quiet, ambiguous conclusion. The realistic set, complete with 9/11 wreckage dust peppering the furniture and costumes, underscores the intensity of the Arnold/Rohrer duel.
La Bute's script does not completely convince. Why would Abby even think of abandoning her powerful job for a man she humiliates as a selfish coward? Why would such an obviously intelligent woman (her lines are full of crisp literary and historical allusions) even consider a plot to disappear that clearly can't work? And why would Ben so passionately love a woman who insults him and denigrates him at every turn? For all the script's flaws, the Strand's production powerfully brings out the black humor and spiraling bitterness of an illicit relationship that has shattered two psyches as devastatingly as the terrorists shattered the WTC in the ashes of 9/11.


9/08/o9 High Zero Festival. Baltimore's High Zero Festival has begun to sprout in the North Station area (quickly becoming Baltimore's new Bohemia, with an assist from the expanding Maryland Institute and College of Art.) The installation-exhibit wing of the free improv sound festival opened tonight at the Load of Fun Gallery. In a conscious effort to out-avant the avant-garde, some of the installations are simply out there and not terribly enticing. Still, there is much to engage the contemplative gallery visitor. Top pics are Owen Gardner's "Space is Deep," where three electronically tuned guitars emit resonant sounds as they lie propped up on paperback classics of a vanished '60's counterculture, and Ayako Kataoka's "A Girl Said," an effort to capture sound visually in a wax-like medium. Hers is the quietist but most probing of the installations as it creates a Buddhist alternative to the audial score.