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.

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