Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Cocktail Hour goes down smooth, but leaves us neither shaken nor stirred

Decline has rarely looked as good - or as exquisitely detailed -  as it does at the Huntington.

The standard line about playwright A.R. Gurney (whose late-80's opus The Cocktail Hour is now on the boards at the Huntington Theatre) is that his work charts the decline of the WASP (i.e., "White Anglo-Saxon Protestant") in our national life.

But it's funny - I haven't noticed that decline.  And I don't think anybody has told Weston or Wellesley about it, either. Indeed, when I worked in the financial district a few years back, it was quite the WASP nest. The WASPs seemed fine, frankly.

Of course, Gurney's WASPs hail from his hometown of Buffalo - and Buffalo is in decline. But that's a function of geography and economics; the idea that all American WASPs are drifting through some Chekhovian twilight, paralyzed by ennui as their cherry orchards fall before the axe of progress . . . 

Well - not so much.

Of course WASP culture has indeed slid from the top of the American pop charts, which today slavishly cater to the tastes of the dispossessed. But the WASPs themselves have seemingly been happy to slide down with everybody else to that lowest common denominator.

What's intriguing is how they've hung on to their money and power anyhow, even as cultural control has slipped from their fingers. It wasn't supposed to work that way; but the WASPs have proved craftily accommodating - they're happy to hire minorities with the right bona fides, and have learned to say all the right multicultural things in all the right multicultural places. They've also become expert at playing race against class, and so let the lower Caucasian orders do their political dirty work. Meanwhile they've kept a lock on the Ivy League and Wall Street, and of course most of our board rooms and almost the entire government. Indeed, thanks to expensive new technologies and the best algorithms non-profits can buy, they're more globalized than ever; arguably they're more powerful than ever, too.

There's a play somewhere in all that stealth - only I don't think it's one of the Chekhov sitcoms that A.R. Gurney has been cranking out.  Still, you can't fault a man for what he's drawn to write about - especially when it's his own experience; nor is it quite fair to insist on a political dimension in a personal memoir. That disposes of much of the highbrow condescension toward this admittedly minor playwright (sorry, haters). 

What's more, Gurney, like many of his class, is a born entertainer.  The Cocktail Hour is never less than wryly observant - its banter consistently crackles with genial, self-aware wit.  Indeed, you could probably fox-trot to the crisp comic beats in this sublime version, which boasts an accomplished cast, superb direction by the reliable Maria Aitken (one of the few world-class directors whose work we see regularly in Boston), and a set (by Allen Moyer) that almost makes you giggle at the pin-point accuracy of its every detail.  The playwright couldn't have asked for a better production.

But as any experienced theatre-goer knows, great productions can cast a peculiar sort of shadow over superficial scripts, and I'm afraid that's what happens at the Huntington. Even as we chuckle, we can perceive a gap looming beneath the cast's comic expertise; the actors seem to always be on a tightrope, doing their best to distract us from an artistic void yawning at their feet.

Richard Poe as a living antique.
For as if to prove that he is indeed one of this self-contained tribe, Gurney can't quite bring himself to bare the heartbreaks he insists his WASPs are hiding. Which may be appealing in some meta-playwriting universe,  but of course compromises whatever he hoped to achieve in terms of human drama. We can forgive a playwright for letting his parents'  politics off the hook; but The Cocktail Hour is a supposed personal memoir that in the end backs away from the personal - and tries to sell us in its place a thin meringue of Pirandellian tropes and tricks.

Let me explain. Gurney's premise is that his factotum, a rising playwright named John (James Waterston) has returned to hearth and home to beg his parents' permission for exploiting their foibles in his latest work for the stage. Witty, whiny John feels he was never loved enough by Mom and Pop - his father, Bradley (at left), was particularly distant. Brother "Jigger" got all his attention, it seems. And that just wasn't fair, and damnit, why won't Pop admit it?

Honestly, have you ever heard such a fool's errand?  John has no serious derelictions of duty to reveal - much less any history of abuse. All he has is a certain perceived internal distance on the part of his parents, a persistent sense that they were sometimes going through the motions with him, as if he weren't "really" their son.

Now this is a solid topic for a session with your therapist - but as dramatic fodder, it's thin, particularly as we have a pretty good idea why John wasn't his parents' favorite. Yet Gurney waits until the penultimate scene of his second act to drop his big reveal -


Which is that John actually is not his father's biological son; Mom committed an "indiscretion," it turns out, that she was forgiven for long ago.  So Pop's not such a bad sort after all, despite his reactionary bluster, his functional alcoholism, his Reagan-esque emotional absence, and his phony work ethic. And at this point Gurney abruptly rings down the curtain with a round of forgiveness for all - right when things have just begun to get interesting.  For I can't even think of a major play that has sympathetically pondered the vexed relationship between the lonely cuckold and his innocent son (even though the situation is hardly as rare as we'd like to believe). Indeed, if Gurney had honestly explored this emotional no-man's-land, he might have had a play for the history books. But instead he only tiptoes to its borders, then beats a hasty retreat.

To plug the resulting gap, he resorts to two major devices: one is a dramatically aimless sister, who openly mourns that she's "only a supporting character" (although she's not even that; she's just filler spacing out the second act). The other is a raft of Pirandellian, play-within-a-play gambits; Gurney keeps pushing the idea that over the course of The Cocktail Hour, we are actually watching the creation of The Cocktail Hour.  Only who cares?  Borrowed meta folderol only works when it's organic to a play's development - and only when the play itself matters, of course.

Despite all this, however, The Cocktail Hour still counts as - well, a pleasant cocktail hour, largely thanks to veteran actors Richard Poe and Maureen Anderman, who as John's benighted parents deliver performances as sterling as their silver. These are two WASPs definitely worth their wings: Poe's stentorian vocals alone are reason enough to catch the show - he seems to be delivering his lovable rants from within one of those walnut wardrobes you see on Antiques Roadshow - while Anderman delivers a more carefully crafted profile that suggests a wry-but-weary stance designed to conceal a wounded internal dynamic. Alas, Huntington mainstay Pamela J. Gray is stuck with the hapless supporting role, but her statuesque alienation feels about right for it. And James Waterston is rather more convincing as A.R. Gurney than he was as Noel Coward in Private Lives.  Only of course this role isn't nearly as interesting as the previous one. Still, his lightly pointed comic attack, leavened by strains of sympathy, again feels like the right strategy - it just makes him merely a buzzing gadfly among the WASPs. But then it's the playwright's fault he doesn't pack more of a sting.

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