FLORIDA WEEKLY EXCLAIMS: THE COCKTAIL HOUR’ CHARMS AND ENTERTAINS AT FLORIDA REP!
by Nancy Stetson, 1/13/16
It was Flannery O’Connor who famously said, “Anyone who survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
That’s certainly true for playwright A.R. Gurney, who’s made a successful career out of writing about WASPs and familial conflict, as society changes and the younger generation questions its elders and their ways. It’s the world in which he grew up, in Buffalo, N.Y., in the 1930s and 40s.
And it’s true for the main character, John (Brendan Powers), in Florida Repertory Theatre’s production of Mr. Gurney’s 1988 award-winning “The Cocktail Hour.” Like Mr. Gurney, John’s childhood and upbringing have given him ample literary fodder for his own work.
John has returned home to visit his family. He’s written a highly autobiographical play and is looking for their permission to move ahead and try to get it produced. But his parents decline.
“I just try to show who we are,” he says.
His father, Bradley (Peter Thomasson), won’t even read the play, but refuses to give his blessing, feeling it will just ridicule and humiliate them.
His mother, Ann (Carrie Lund), keeps urging John to write a book instead. “Books are quieter,” she says, claiming that plays are too noisy and vulgar.
They’re both overly concerned what others might think and how their son’s play might reflect on them.
Politeness and social manners rule this family’s interactions, but underneath all the niceties, strong emotions churn. They might be a calm and placid lake on the surface, but underneath the waters are roiling.
John’s sister, Nina (Kate Hampton), comes by for dinner, but the meal is delayed and so the cocktail hour lasts longer than 60 minutes. As the drinks flow, passionate emotions start pushing past the polite veneers that tamped them down.
John feels he’s been overlooked all his life and wonders why he’s the odd man out in the family. Nina feels taken for granted. She’s the one who’s stayed close to home, taking care of her parents, even though she also has a family of her own. What she really wants to do is move to Clevelandand learn how to train seeing-eye dogs, a desire that horrifies both her parents. A third sibling, a brother, obviously the favored one, is spoken of, but does not make an appearance.
This cast makes a believable family. Ms. Lund and Mr. Thomasson have played husband-and-wife in at least two other Florida Rep productions of plays by Mr. Gurney (“Black Tie” and “Indian Blood”). Like many long-married couples, they have an easy way about them and, in one scene, while talking about another couple, they complete each other’s sentences as they comment on how the other couple does the same thing.
Mr. Thomasson’s Bradley is somehow charming while being irritating; he quotes various people from Byron to Emerson, but refuses to let his son look anything up because he doesn’t want to be proven wrong. Desperately holding onto the old ways and rituals, he considers the cocktail hour “sacred.” Any problem, he believes, can be solved by throwing money at it. It’s Mr. Thomasson’s great skill that makes us like his character, though we’re laughing at him.
Ms. Lund is equally as gifted. She’s the queen of the dry delivery, and just her certain intonation of a word or phrase can make an audience laugh uproariously. (In fact, this became a problem on opening night, as some subsequent lines would be lost in the continued laughter.)
Her Ann wears her privilege like a tiara. She had me in stitches with the way she airily waves her right hand and requests, “Just a splash,” her charm bracelet tinkling almost as if she’s ringing a little bell to summon a maid.
Mr. Powers has the unenviable role of playing the straight man, though as the evening wears on, he becomes increasingly — and amusingly — unhinged.
He and Ms. Hampton also have a lovely scene at the top of Act II, where they sit on the couch together, two siblings laughing and reminiscing about their childhood. And Ms. Hampton’s character, initially placid and conventional, proves to have some grit to her.
“Everyone has beans to spill,” says the elegant Ann in the beginning of the play. As the action progresses, we discover exactly what those beans are.
“The Cocktail Hour” is a very clever play; the play we are seeing, in fact, is the play that John has written, which has the very same name. It grows increasingly self-referential, as John declares that he and his mother must have “the obligatory mother-and-son scene” and that, though there may not be much in terms of a plot, the play needs a kicker with which to end.
Set designer Ray Recht provides the family a spacious living room, tastefully designed with elegant understatement. There are four tall white columns, wainscoting, subdued tan and mint colors. The ceiling’s so tall, the grandfather clock in the corner is dwarfed and easy to overlook.
A master of details, Mr. Recht has placed some hunting scenes on the far back wall of the staircase leading upstairs. And — the piéce de résistance — a painting of a clipper ship stage left, above the white fireplace. Clipper ships are discussed briefly by John and his father (one is even on the label of the Cutty Sark on the bar), a sailing vessel that briefly enjoyed its time of glory but is long gone, much like Bradley’s cherished WASP way of life.
There are oceans of space between the furniture, echoing the wide divide among all the characters. Director Chris Clavelli does some clever staging, with actors speaking to each other across a wide room, coming together and regrouping in different configurations. At times, John sits alone in front of the fireplace, as if stranded on his own island. At another point, he sits on the floor next to the sofa where his parents are comfortably ensconced, taking a childlike position, subservient to them.
The laughs come easy in this production, which possesses both lightness and substance. This gifted cast knows exactly how to deliver the playwright’s lines and inhabit his characters.
“The Cocktail Hour” is one of those magical productions where a talented cast and an intuitive director combine with a smart script to provide an entertaining night at the theater.
I left with a lightness in my heart and a big smile on my face. ¦