Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Gurney’s “Cocktail Hour” resurfaces at NCR

In 1988The Old Globe launched the world premiere of J.R. Gurney’s semi-autobiographical “The Cocktail Hour” in a Jack O’Brien (he directed) stylistic way, as only Jack could do. I’m sure it has been remounted over time, but this reviewer cannot remember it playing here since. (Correct me if I’m wrong).

Gurney, an upper middle class WASP knows about this cocktail ritual, as he not only speaks to it, he is a part of it. Bringing it back now is like a blast from the past and should be seen through a different lens than in 1988 where the cocktail hour like so many other gentrified traditions mattered more than life itself. Maybe it still does, but I’ve not had many sightings.

Shana Wride, J. Michael Flynn, Cristina Soria, Chris Petschler
For over two hours and countless refills (Ann’s favorite; “I’d like a very dry martini with plenty of ice and a small twist of lemon”), Gurney’s model for his alter family finds common ground on two or three subjects; how they like their drinks mixed, everyone is civil at least during cocktails and no crying in your martini’s. One thing is for certain, they all are opposed to brother John’s new play even though they’ve yet to read it.

Oh, did I mention that son John (a passionate Chris Pitschler) is visiting his parent’s family home somewhere in upstate New York to show them the finished script of his new play... and that it’s about the family? It’s called “The Cocktail Hour”.

Dad Bradley (J. Michael Flynn is firm and stern throughout) goes into a tail -spin and is especially vocal and up tight about revealing whatever family secret it might or not hold. (“After I’m dead, after your mother’s dead, after everyone you can possibly hurt has long since gone…”) Family is sacred to Bradley and no son of his is going to embarrass the family he worked so hard to support, educate, refine and redefine by putting anything out there, warts and all for everyone to see.  

Mom Ann (a sugary sweet Cristina Soria) thinks son John should publish a book (she almost did way back when) instead of a play and sister Nina (Shana Wride) is pissed because she only has a ‘supporting role’ in John’s script, this new one that is still ‘in search of a plot’. (“I just think it’s interesting I always play a minor role in this family…If I get ulcers they’re minor ulcers. If I die it’s a minor death”) Shana Wride’s Nina rides out the storm in great form and style. She is a breath of fresh air and she needs more stage time, minor character or not.

In one of the more notable lines from Gurney’s self revealing comedy of manners, now in a polished and somewhat amusing production at the North Coast Repertory is an exchange between Ann and husband Bradley after “The Cocktail Party” by T.S. Eliot is mentioned: “The cocktail hour is not a cocktail party to which people are invited. The cocktail hour is for the family, private and personal”. That about sums it up folks for this families ritual, so onward and upward.

Over the course of the play Bradley and Ann try to keep the conversation light, unemotional, noncommittal and congenial. This in itself is an art and director Rosina Reynolds is an expert at managing to keep the pace and peace and everyone on target. It does have its moments of upper class humor, about maids and dress but they seem to be more inside than outside.

Both parents take turns on and off the set managing to change the conversation, in a most civilized way about the subject John wants to delve into in more detail: He never felt loved as a child and thinks there is something more to his parent’s early relationship that involves him.

Scene by scene, revelatory, sweet, to the point or mixing drinks or answering the phone (from their not seen on stage favorite son, Jagger) each of the actors has his or her turn at being in the limelight. All succeed at getting a point across, or telling their secret desires but it’s John in the end that finally gets some resolution, although questions still remain.

On some level was almost painful listening to their nonsensical social hour issues but I guess at cocktail time, nothing of any significance is talked about. Thankfully after some common ground is reached, cocktail hour has expired and they all head to the Dining Room (another of Gurney’s plays) for lamb chops prepared by Nina. 

Overall the production showcases Marty Burnett’s skills at building the most attractive living rooms north of La Jolla. His set is bright and inviting and it is evident the cast feels at home with their new home and cocktails in hand, satisfied that their favorite tradition will not be tampered with in any way.

Matt Novotny’ designed the lighting and Elisa Benzoni’s costumes fit the characters. Melanie Chen’s sound design brought the period piece into focus and Peter Herman’s wig and hair design round out the mid-seventies picture. 

If you are of the “Cocktail Hour” crowd you will understand this families plight. If on the other hand, you are of the chicken and matzo ball soup clan, it’s all very foreign.


See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Oct. 8th
Organization: North Coast Repertory Theatre
Phone: 858-481-1055
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Ste. D, Solana, Beach CA 92075
Ticket Prices: $43.00-$50.00

Web: northcoastrep.org

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