“When they’re trying to decide what plays to put in here,” said my girlfriend as we took our seats at the Guthrie Theater’s McGuire Proscenium Stage, “they must think, ‘Okay, which ones take place in a living room?'”
It’s true, that stage gets more than its share of living-room dramas—but then, playwrights love setting action in living rooms, not having learned what sitcoms figured out long ago, which is that 95% of families do most of their hanging out in the kitchen. Of course, playwrights also like to write about the type of families that really love their living rooms: families like the bumptious quintet who are the subject of The Cocktail Hour. They’re white, they’re Eastern, they’re rich, they’re drunk, and they suffer from intergenerational communication challenges.
Yes, this is another one of those plays that hinges on questions like: does Dad actually work, or do his golf buddies just toss him plum deals? Did Mom have a fling with a hot horse trainer down at the stable? How much of a father’s money should his adult children spend to follow their boat-building dreams out in California? Have we been cruel to the help? Did Dad ever love me? Do we all drink too much?
We’ve all been here before—in the Guthrie’s living rooms, if not our own—and playwright A.R. Gurney doesn’t have Albee’s wit or O’Neill’s pathos, so the only reason The Cocktail Hour has to exist is a meta-theatrical conceit. John (Rod Brogan) is a playwright who’s come home to ask his septuagenarian parents (Peter Thomson and Kandis Chappell) for permission to stage his new play, which he frankly admits is a thinly fictionalized depiction of their own family. If you don’t think that turns out to be the very play we’re watching, I have some seaside real estate in Farmington to sell you.
Under the direction of Maria Aitken, the actors do their damnedest to wring laughs out of Gurney’s increasingly forced running gags, such the one about how the family’s matriarch orders one “splash” (“Just a splash! I’m serious”) of gin after another. Nobody ever acts particularly buzzed, perhaps because their tolerance is calibrated on the scale of American theater, where in some productions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the cast puts away enough booze to embalm a Great Dane.
The program includes a page of anthropological explanation about the “WASP way of life.” Yes, WASPs are people too, but it’s hard not to walk out of the theater feeling like there just might be some other American ways of life that would be much more compelling—and much more important—to put on stage right now.