Early on in A.R. Gurney's meta-theatrical play The Cocktail Hour, playwright John (Ron Brogan) tells his father Bradley (Peter Thomson) that his next piece is named for the family's early-evening tradition of pre-dinner drinks. His father wonders if that title has already been taken by T.S. Eliot.
As John notes, that would be The Cocktail Party. That's a play that would be much more preferable to watch than Gurney's exhausted and trite examination of a WASP family and its perceived troubles.
See also: A Christmas Carol: Still a Comfy Ride[jump]
I don't have much connection to this world. I only have the "W" as far as WASPs go, and I grew up a couple of social and economic strata below the Ivy League-educated, well-dressed folks in the play.
That doesn't mean I can't connect to characters from unfamiliar backgrounds. I've never been a thane of Scotland, but it's easy to understand the motivations in Macbeth. Here, it's just a bunch of people talking for a couple of hours, with a bit of shouting mixed in, before heading off to dinner.
The reason for the shouting is John's new play, which promises to blow the lid off the family, or at least present some embarrassing details about the group. A lot of that is focused on the son's sense that his parents have emotionally abandoned him, leaving him to a life of, er, being a success in publishing and having a string of plays produced in New York and elsewhere.
After his father objects, John agrees to not produce the play. That doesn't mean the matter is finished, as the family has a habit of revisiting territory that they thought was already covered. This is furthered as the family matriarch Ann (Kandis Chappell, looking like an even-more prim Barbara Bush) and sister Nina (Charity Jones) enter the fray.
All the while, Gurney's play twists back on itself, making references to the situation unfolding onstage before us, while director Maria Aitken's staging is slowly pulled back to reveal more and more of the artificial edges of the set.
When Gurney's played premiered in 1988, this kind of referential trickery was more novel. Now that the fourth wall has been pretty much shattered onstage, in film, and on TV, it offers only a minor distraction.
The company does what it can with all of this, especially Thomson and Chappell, who are convincing as a long-married couple. Brogan and Jones don't get inside their characters nearly as well, providing performances that are stagey. Considering all the other meta stuff going on, that may be intentional, but it still doesn't help bridge the gap between the characters and the audience.
IF YOU GO:
The Cocktail Hour Through January 4, 2014 Guthrie Theater 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis $40-$71 For tickets and more information, call 612-377-2224 or visit online.