‘The Cocktail Hour’ Review: Anatomy of a WASP

By Terry Teachout
Jan. 7, 2016

Read the Review on WSJ.com

If A.R. Gurney had been born in 1900 instead of 1930, all of his major plays would have had long runs on Broadway and he would now be universally acknowledged as one of America’s leading playwrights. But his penetratingly witty studies of the WASP ascendancy in retreat came along a couple of generations too late to catch the wave of changing theatrical taste, and so he has never had a Broadway hit. Instead, his plays are regularly staged off Broadway and by smart regional companies from coast to coast. Be that as it may, Mr. Gurney is still one of the very best playwrights that we have, and “The Cocktail Hour,” which ranks among his finest efforts, is now being performed by Florida Repertory Theatre, one of the top regional troupes in the U.S. If all that sounds to you like a recipe for success, you’re not wrong: Florida Rep’s production, directed by Chris Clavelli, is the most satisfying staging of “The Cocktail Hour” I’ve ever seen.

First performed in 1988, “The Cocktail Hour” is a more-or-less autobiographical comedy about John (Brendan Powers), a youngish playwright who comes home to Buffalo, N.Y., the city where he (and Mr. Gurney) grew up, with a surprise up his sleeve for his priggish parents: His new play is all about them. The title? “The Cocktail Hour,” naturally—and it’s not a wholly affectionate portrait, either. Part of the Pirandellian joke is that Bradley (Peter Thomasson), the martini-mixing patriarch in whose handsome living room the action unfolds, didn’t much care for his son’s previous plays. “Are people going to scream and shout in this one?” he asks. Well, he ain’t seen nothing yet, as the well-mannered Bradley would never dream of putting it.

Ann (Carrie Lund), John’s mother, has the best line, a two-way zinger aimed at drama critics who don’t get what her son is up to when he puts WASPs on stage: “They don’t like us, John. They resent us. They think we’re all Republicans, all superficial and all alcoholics. Only the latter is true.” But “The Cocktail Hour” contains plenty of other laughs, more than enough to briefly throw the audience off the trail of Mr. Gurney’s intentions. For this is a serious comedy about a family whose members are at odds with one another but are too nice to admit it save for John, who longs with all his heart to break through the blank wall of gentility that separates him from his parents. That’s why he’s written a play about them—and why Bradley is willing to pay him a good-sized chunk of cash if he’ll agree not to let it be produced.

I last saw “The Cocktail Hour” performed by Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company in an 890-seat theater whose Broadway-sized stage was a couple of sizes too big for the show. Fort Myers’s 393-seat Arcade Theatre, by contrast, is just right, both for the play itself and for the staging. Mr. Clavelli, a longtime member of Florida Rep’s semi-permanent ensemble, is as adept a director as he is an actor (he played the challenging triple role in the company’s 2011 revival of Mr. Gurney’s “Sylvia”). He also has a home-court advantage: Three of his fellow ensemble members, Ms. Lund and Messrs. Powers and Thomasson, are in the cast, and they act as though they’d known one another for decades, which gives the show a striking air of artistic unanimity. The only outsider is Kate Hampton, who plays John’s older sister, but she fits in so well that you’d never guess she was a ringer.

It isn’t easy to play genteel WASPs in a lively way without stooping to over-broad caricature. All praise, then, to Ms. Lund and Mr. Thomasson for steering clear of that fatal trap: They portray the upper-middle-class complacency of Ann and Bradley in a way that is at once comic and sympathetic. A case in point is the way in which Ms. Lund delivers her innocuous-sounding first line, “I’m bringing cheese!” The fluty spin that she puts on the word “cheese” reminded me of Dame Edith Evans’s unforgettably preposterous reading of the line “A handbag?” in the 1952 film of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” You can’t get any funnier than that. Yet you never doubt that she’s playing a real person, one who may seem self-satisfied at first glance but has clearly known her full share of sorrow.

All this is done with the lightest of touches. At no time does Mr. Clavelli’s cast let you forget that “The Cocktail Hour” is a comedy. The result is a show that keeps you chuckling—then puts a lump in your throat at evening’s end. Who could ask for anything more?