‘The Cocktail Hour’ Makes a Tipsy Splash (3 1/2 Stars)

‘The Cocktail Hour’ Written by A.R. Gurney; Directed by Maria Aitken; at The Avenue of the Arts/BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave, Boston, MA. Performances through Dec. 15th.

A.R. Gurney wrote this autobiographical play because – as he tells us through his character John – he had to.  At the center of his own tale, he is a man who deals with his personal demons by putting them out there in play format for all the world to see. And therein lies the plot’s hook.  What better place to find demons than with the family that helped make them?

John has come home to upstate New York for a dinner with his well-to-do family: Mom, Dad, Sister Nina, and hovering on the fringes of this story while ever present in discussion – the favorite son, “Jigger”. Thus the first conflict ensues. After all, the story is told by the son John, who naturally places himself at the center of the family tale. But throughout the play he is constantly reminded that Jigger is the favorite. Not even the oldest, but the one who can do no wrong in “Pop’s” eyes, despite no valid reason to support the favoritism. In fact, from what we gather through the dialogue, Jigger seems to be in a state of job transition.  Thus it is all the more unlikely that Pops – who appears to be all about the love of hard work and steady pay – finds naught but favor in the younger son. It’s also no coincidence that Dad has nicknames for the other two children but not for John. As fans of their own never-missed cocktail hour (and probably functioning alcoholics in denial), it’s no surprise that the parents’ favorite son is nicknamed “jigger”.

As the drinks (and comedy) flow during the beloved pre-dinner cocktail hour, the opening scene is pure irony. John’s father Bradley prattles on to John about the family and its history as if John didn’t know any of it. But John does know. He’s been listening – and ultimately writing about it. After all, this family mythos his father now repeats to him is the underpinnings of a revealing play that John has written about the family, and he is at the dinner to announce the existence of said play. Feeling obligations to his kin, he is also here to ask their permission to allow the play to be produced.  Here lies another conflict. While John feels he has written what he believes to be the truth, and he says he has done it with “warmth, affection and respect”. Pops is appalled that the family’s private lives will be put on display. Since it is written by the son he hasn’t favored over the years, he is especially fearful.
A delightful aspect of The Cocktail Hour is the fact that it is a play about the play. At times the author has fun turning reality in on itself.  Gurney takes the opportunity to make references to the very theatre the play is performed in and the audience and critics watching it. I found myself at times imagining that the play had already been produced, the effects observed, and the play then tweaked to include the results we were watching. But of course it is just the wonderful imagination of the author at work.
It’s also fun to watch the professional and perhaps fearless actors begin the night so comically stiff, as if they were members of a high school drama club. But it’s only fitting as it reflects the unease of this initially sober meeting of family members, each weighed down with his or her own personal baggage. As the night wears on the booze-fueled angst and demons come out. Secrets are revealed, wounds opened and healed, people grow, and long-tucked-away dreams and desires are pushed to the forefront to be dealt with.
Richard Poe is a real treat as the bellicose father Bradley. Maureen Anderman plays Ann, the only slightly more affectionate mother. Pamela Gray plays Nina, the vapid dog-loving sister of John, the author’s persona, ably played by James Waterston.  All the actors are Broadway experienced and deliver their lines fast, funny and flawlessly in this comedy-drama.
The stage scene is a wonderfully rich, subtly-lit living room with lots of old-style dark wood, comfortable furnishings such as a piano, a fireplace and a chandelier – a room that might remind audience members of their grandparent’s home – if their grandparents were one-percenters. The room reflects an old, fading lifestyle of the author’s well-to-do family in 1970’s Buffalo.  In real life, A.R. Gurney’s mother was from the Goodyear family.

The scenic design and lighting design are the work of Allen Moyer and Paul Palazzo respectively. The director Maria Aitken gives us a solid, well-paced and enjoyable play about the manners, misdeeds and mores of the moneyed set. For more info, go to:


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