You go to the theater in Minnesota in December and you’re going to get some coughing. And some sneezing. And some incessant, maddening throat-clearing. But part of the magic of theater is that, for me at least, if the show’s compelling enough, all of that tends to fade into the background and become far less irksome. When the coughs start taking center stage, though, you know there’s something wrong.
Bodily emissions weren’t an issue for the first half of The Cocktail Hour, A.R. Gurney’s semi-dark comedy focused on a hard-drinking family of WASPs waiting for their dinner. It’s a play about well-heeled, profoundly white people working through personal demons, familial tensions and liberal guilt. It’s also a play about writing a play, with a script filled with meta-commentary and T.S. Eliot allusions that quietly congratulates its viewers for knowing a thing or two about theater. As it turns out, the folks who come out to a Tuesday night show at The Guthrie are precisely the audience for all of this.
That isn’t to say the show doesn’t merit their attention. For its first half, The Cocktail Hour crackles along on the strength of its genuinely funny dialogue and lively performances from all four actors. For a play set entirely in a living room, it never hurts for kinetic energy, as director Maria Aitken keeps her cast constantly circling each other - both physically and metaphorically - and springing up to pour another drink any time the talk gets tense. As much as meta-fictional flourishes tend to grate on me, many of Gurney’s points about playwriting hit home, particularly the bits about the family’s more middlebrow members rejecting modern theater as a cesspool of vulgarity, plotlessness and excessive yelling.
And then the second act began, and I suddenly became acutely aware of the coughing and sniffling and clearing of throats. It was a cacophony sounding from all corners of the Proscenium, one cough answering another like a call-and-response song, and not a rumble was escaping my notice. It wasn’t that anything had changed on stage. Quite to the contrary, everything was more or less the same as it had been in the first act, and therein lay the problem. Around this point The Cocktail Hour began to feel unshakably familiar, from the rhythm of the conversations to the wealthy white people grasping at relevancy to the sitcom-staple brightly lit sofa at the foot of a wallpapered staircase.
Deja Vu all over again
That familiarity is the root of my problems with The Cocktail Hour. Despite being well-staged, well-acted and generally entertaining, it feels somehow unnecessary, or at least inessential. There’s nothing happening here that we haven’t seen and heard in dozens of other narratives about a family gathering for dinner and opening up old wounds. (It’s enough of a trope that HUGE Theater has a weekly improv show satirizing the format.) We have the blustering-but-vulnerable patriarch, the demure mother whose passions run deceptively deep, the artist son yearning for acceptance and the underappreciated daughter eager to form an identity of her own. Archetypes all, and not necessarily bad ones, but very familiar ones all the same.
Maybe it’s partially because the play is set somewhere in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s and was first staged in the late ‘80s, when these particular First-World problems hadn’t had quite as long to marinate, but in 2014 the proceedings feel quaint if I’m charitable, reheated if I’m not. We’ve all seen Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Celebration and that dinner party episode of The Office. There’s nothing wrong with revisiting the format if you’re bringing something new or especially interesting to the table, but these particular characters, engaging though they are, largely do not.
Of course, Gurney’s script addresses that concern outright with a deft bit of preemptive critic-baiting. As the patriarch tries to badger his son into scrapping a highly personal play based on the family, he cites a critic who said the son’s previous autobiographical characters weren’t worth writing about. “Nobody cares about our way of life,” the father barks. The son’s helpless response is, “I care, Pop!”
There’s something to be said for that. Gurney quite intentionally keeps the shocking revelations on the mild side, the family discord reasonably respectful. This is a play about people with problems, not problems with people attached to them. Gurney clearly did care about these characters, and so do the actors and director. They’re funny, surprisingly pleasant people to be around, and that’s almost enough to carry the day, but not quite enough to overcome the overriding sense of “been there, done that.” It’s not a bad production by any means, just one that left me feeling unsatisfied.
I must admit, though, that the buzz around me as I got up from my seat was very positive. Strange though it seems, perhaps this play about well-off, white, flamboyantly literate, older New Englanders had struck a chord with this crowd of overwhelmingly well-off, white, flamboyantly literate, older Minnesotans.
And phlegmy. Leave us not forget phlegmy.