In 1988, playwright A. R. Gurney wrote what he describes as his “most autobiographical” work, “The Cocktail Hour”. Though the patrician class may have dwindled a bit since then, the work survives as a particularly potent skewering of the top one percent and their insular community. Some might too hastily conclude that this play is dated, but much more correctly, Huntington Theatre Company’s current production of the play, directed by Maria Aitken (fondly remembered for her staging of “39 Steps”) reminds us, via this comedy of (increasingly ill) manners, of how this subculture has become almost extinct. One could get the first clue as to Gurney’s intent from very detailed specifics describing the living room set he envisions in the written text of the play: “the overall effect should not be opulent or grandiose or particularly trendy, but rather tasteful, comfortable, and civilized, an oasis of traditional warmth and solid good taste, a haven in a heartless world”. He goes on to depict what will become the focus of the evening: “On the coffee table, noticeably set apart from…other objects, is a thick manuscript in a black cover” (though in this production the chosen color is red).
That manuscript forms the set-up for the play, a deceptively simple one. It’s the 1970’s, and time for the ritual happy hour at the home of the prototype WASPs, Bradley (Richard Poe) and Ann (Maureen Anderman), also attended by their son John (James Waterston), editor at a publishing company as well as part-time playwright, and their daughter Nina (Pamela J. Gray). Since their new maid is clueless about how to cook a roast, happy hour extends considerably longer than usual, making for some unusually loose lips. It seems John has written a comedy of manners about a WASP family that appears to mirror a certain real-life family all too close to home. Hence the manuscript perched ominously on the family coffee table. As the family begins to realize just what John has wrought, what becomes foremost at issue here is personal privacy and boundaries. It should be noted that this is a patriarchal family (the cast in the written text delineated as “Bradley, Ann his wife, John his son and Nina their daughter”) with all the time-worn expectations this implies. As an example, Bradley declaims: “You can’t live without servants…civilization depends on them” (begging the question of whose civilization). As to the cocktail hour itself, it‘s described as “family…family feelings…it replaced evening prayer…it kept all of life in an amazing state of suspended animation”. As the evening progresses, glasses are refilled, as Ann requests, with “just a splash; I’m serious”.
Just as Gurney promised his parents this play wouldn’t be produced in Buffalo in their lifetimes, this is the big issue in this play, as we begin to recognize this play within a play, reminded of visions of those Chinese boxes within boxes within boxes, or those Russian Matryoshka nestled dolls. His writing in the first act is funny and satirical; by the second act, it’s almost surreal as though we’ve just watched a play about the play John wrote, which is essentially the play Gurney wrote.
There’s even Gurney’s self-described obligatory family skeleton to be revealed, as he (in Bradley’s fearful view) “spills the beans”. Thus the playwright weaves an increasingly clever web that, in the right hands, presents us with an almost clinically perfect dissection of a modern gathering of dinosaurs. Thanks to the superb acting by Waterston, Poe, Anderman and Gray, under Aitken’s meticulous direction (who, for example, has Poe and Anderman cross their legs simultaneously as per Gurney’s precise stage directions), things are decidedly in the right hands. The technical crew, as the family members themselves might put it, is also truly top drawer, from the Scenic Design by Allen Moyer (also faithful to the playwright’s instructions, and wittily so, with a totally furnished dining room including its own chandelier, stage right), to the Costume Design by Candice Donnelly, to the Lighting Design by Paul Palazzo and the Sound Design by John Gromada.
At the end of this sumptuous, pluperfect production, prepare to be both shaken and stirred. The cocktail hour as a ritual institution may be, as John puts it, “over, it’s dead, it’s gone” (as, indeed, is also true today of the nuclear family meal that Ann says “will make us all feel much better”), but it’s fully on view in this work. What does endure, happily for those of us who cherish it, is fine theater. In the case of this very funny production, to paraphrase Ann, what we have is just a smash, seriously.