BWW Review: A Qualified Yes to THE COCKTAIL HOUR
There is much to enjoy in Coyote Stageworks' production of THE COCKTAIL HOUR, by A.R. Gurney: the script is funny, the directing is top-notch, and there is a great deal of excellent acting. Unfortunately, one actor was sick at the performance I attended, resulting in problems for the show that night.
For those unfamiliar with the works of A.R. Gurney, who died last year, he based his plays primarily on the lives of upper class Northeasterners - wealthy New York and New England Yankees. THE COCKTAIL HOUR is a modern comedy of manners, with serious moments. The action takes place in the 1970's, in a large, old, impeccably decorated traditional house that Ann (Lee Bryant) has lived in all her life. Her husband, Bradley (Jeffrey Jones), an elderly man in failing health, rules the roost, although Ann appears to have learned how to soften his edges. Their daughter, Nina (Yo Younger), resents that her two brothers, troublemaker John (Chuck Yates) and Jigger - we never learn Jigger's real name and he does not appear onstage - have moved away, leaving her to cope with her parents' problems alone. John, a frustrated playwright, has written a script about the family, and wants his father's permission to submit it to producers - permission that is not forthcoming.
THE COCKTAIL HOUR makes fun of the foibles of those who grow up in true privilege - financially secure, white, and Protestant, even if not always male. The family members have the same relationship problems as the rest of us, but refuse to acknowledge any kind of unpleasantness except incidents that they believe are caused by bad manners and poor breeding. Their biggest problem seems to be their inability to find good cooks and maids. They miss the genteel old days, and do not seem to notice that for many Americans, those good old days were not so good.
One way to satirize any group is to put its members' favorite pronouncements together and build a story around them. That is the course that Gurney chose in THE COCKTAIL HOUR - not much happens in terms of a plot, but the audience laughs at the characters' view of reality. Bradley is just as overbearing as the most stereotypical Jewish mother but, unlike they (actually, we), he firmly believes in a nightly "splash" of Scotch to set the world right. The family members in THE COCKTAIL HOUR would never say they are furious because that would be declasse; instead they become passive aggressive in their attempts to avoid being impolite.
Director David Youse perfectly captures the escalating sense of irritation that these family members feel, which eventually grows into full-blown anger. At that point, their reserve crumbles and they bare their souls. Their honest conversations, however, might not occur if not for the additional alcohol they imbibe while an incompetent cook delays dinner longer and longer. It takes them much of the play to arrive where my very ethnic and very emotional family members would land within five minutes.
Lee Bryant sensitively plays the wife and mother caught between her husband, her children, and her own needs - a woman who turns out to be far less shallow than she seems at first. The daughter, Nina, has inherited her mother's grace and competence, although she puts the graciousness aside and reveals her true feelings with far less prodding than Ann requires. Under Yo Younger's interpretation, Nina affects bitchiness to cover her vulnerabilities. Ms. Younger gives her performance a spicy feel, perfectly complementing Ms. Bryant's low-key approach. Chuck Yates does a top-notch job as John, the catalyst to the family's honest conversations. John is always looking to stir the pot, but then affects innocence when trouble ensues. Mr. Yates' facial expressions and matter-of-fact tones expertly convey John's not-so-playful approach to his family.
Jeffrey Jones, most familiar to audiences as the principal in FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF and the emperor in AMADEUS, is the actor who was ill during the performance I attended. Although he was often disengaged that night, stumbling over and forgetting lines, he nonetheless successfully conveyed Bradley's bluster and attention-seeking. Mr. Jones also had some touching moments in scenes where Bradley talks about his love for John. I am told that the audience gave the cast a standing ovation on Sunday afternoon, when Mr. Jones was feeling better. Even on the night I attended, I heard several audience members discussing the show as they exited the theatre; their comments were all complimentary.
Josh Clabaugh's fabulous set serves as an additional character, silently conveying the family's back story. The huge grand piano not only figures heavily in the characters' reminiscenses about their early lives, but it contains a collection of photographs, some clearly of previous generations. A painted portrait of a stern-looking forebear hangs over the fireplace, contrasting with the homey photographs. Mr. Clabaugh makes the house looked lived-in and intimidating at the same time.
Because of the many wonderful things in this presentation of THE COCKTAIL HOUR and because Mr. Jones' difficulties apparently stemmed from a temporary illness, I recommend giving the production a chance.
The others involved in the production are Chuck Yates (producer and prop designer), Phil Gold (stage manager), David Simpson (lighting designer), Frank Cazares (costume designer), and David Engel (sound designer).
THE COCKTAIL HOUR is running from March 23rd through April 1, 2018 with nine performances during that time. Performances take place at the Annenberg Theater in the Palm Springs Art Museum. Evening performances begin at 7:30 p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m. A Q&A session with cast members will follow the Thursday matinee. Tickets are $45 - $55 for matinees and $50 - $60 for evening performances. To purchase individual tickets or subscriptions, call 760-325-4490 or visit annenbergtheater.org. For group sales, call 760-318-0024.
PHOTO CREDIT: David A. Lee