The Cocktail Hour
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
June 1, 2008
Nobody writes about upper class WASPs better than A.R. Gurney. The Cocktail Hour, now in a fine revival by Theatre Breaking Through Barriers (formerly Theatre by the Blind) showcases the talents which have permeated many of his works through the years—charming, witty dialogue with an upper crust sensibility.
John (Nicholas Viselli), a publisher-turned-playwright, has returned home to ask for his parents' permission to put up a play he has written about them, also called "The Cocktail Hour." His mother, Ann (Melanie Boland), doesn't seem to mind much; his sister Nina (Pamela Sabaugh) is upset that she's not featured more prominently; but his father, Bradley (George Ashiotis), takes the most offense, offering him $20,000 to keep the play in a desk drawer until the entire family and everyone who knows them is dead. The gathering during the family's traditional cocktail hour leads to confrontations and revelations that bring them farther apart—and subsequently closer together—than ever.
I had never seen a production by TBTB—I have never seen any production that utilized disable actors—so I was curious to see how the production would be staged. In the company of four, only one has a visible disability, the visually impaired George Ashiotis (who doubles as the company's artistic director).
All four cast members have great chemistry and a terrific rapport with one another. Boland and Sabaugh have the upper-class, WASPy vocal patterns down pat. Viselli nicely captures the tired gaze of a man constantly brought down by his family.
Watching Ashiotis perform is a very interesting experience. He finds his way very easily around Bert Scott's simple set, and his feeling around for objects seems like it is written into the script. His disability is ignored, as expected, and five minutes into the piece, the audience manages to forget about it, as well. He clearly introduces the audience to TBTB's motto, training disabled actors to not let their disabilities get in their way. The best part is his deadpan line-readings, which provide Gurney's pithy one-liners with even more of a punch.
Ike Schambelan's production manages to capture all of Gurney's humor, but seemingly ignores the time period. The play is set in the mid-1970s, there are clear cut references to that in the text, but the four actors seem to act and react in a decidedly modern way. Chloe Chapin's costume design doesn't seem to shout "mid-1970s" either (though they are attractive). Scott's lighting and set are attractive and unobtrusive, though I can't quite figure out why a family with upper class tastes would paint their living room aqua blue and their hallway cantaloupe orange.
However, Gurney's script is so timeless that one can easily ignore any incongruities, especially considering how many references are as true today as they were 30 years ago. Case in point: a mention of the actress Swoosie Kurtz, who had previously starred in one of John's plays, being on a television show. Today, Kurtz is one of the members of the ensemble of ABC's Pushing Daisies.
Another example is the family's talking about how they may or may not have "Indian blood," and how it's an insult. One of Gurney's more recent plays, entitled Indian Blood, is, I assume, as somewhat autobiographical as The Cocktail Hour.
TBTB's production of The Cocktail Hour is effective most in its simplicity, which gives the audience the chance to really capture everything that's going on, from Ashiotis reaching around to find a glass or the working player piano in the corner. They even give audience members with "low vision" the opportunity to tour the set prior to the show's starting. All in all, it's a very enjoyable production for these lazy summer Sundays.