Tipping Point Theatre’s staging of The Cocktail Hour is a measured and refined take on playwright A.R. Gurney’s complex text. As directed by James R. Kuhl, this production is both skewering and self-effacing, its comically gifted cast seizing numerous opportunities for both laughter and introspection all under the umbrella of a uniquely autobiographical structure.
The play’s framework is deliberately, cleverly self-referential. John (Brian Sage) is a playwright who has written a play about his family, and he feels duty bound to get his father’s blessing before the script is produced. The play, John explains while standing in his parents’ living room, is about a playwright returning to his parents’ house to ask his father’s permission to produce the play he’s written about the family. In case the parallels weren’t easy enough to draw, the fictional play — constantly referenced, but sparingly read — is also entitled The Cocktail Hour. Gurney fully commits to the premise: every allusion to John’s play, from character motivations to huffy exits, is eventually borne out onstage.
This device is effective in making the viewer feel immediately at eye level with the playwright himself and also flavors every subsequent interaction, which is particularly important to the comedy enacted at the characters’ expense. John obviously struggles with his monied upbringing and his parents’ continued privilege; through his eyes, mother Ann (Julia Glander) and father Bradley (Thomas D. Mahard) initially come across as a pair of bourgeois functional alcoholics who haven’t encountered a problem their checkbook can’t solve. Although it sounds brutal, in practice, the characterizations feel light and are terrifically funny; Glander in particular positively sparkles in her impotent fretting over dinner and repeated invocations of the fully stocked beverage cart. The design elements lend generous credence to the comfortable old-money feel of this family, from tastefully opulent set and properties design (by Sarah Pearline and Ruth Nardecchia, respectively) to costume designer Sarah DeGrave’s perfectly understated luxury style.
The humor of the production finds complement and contrast in Gurney’s braver, more emotional beats. John’s much maligned sister, Nina (Angela Kay Miller), elevates a petulant complaint about being held back from her far-fetched, long-deferred dream into a relatable helplessness over caretaking responsibilities for their aging parents. Not even John himself escapes the critical eye, as his father issues all but elbow their way into the fore in the play’s second act. Here at the center of the narrative, Sage and Mahard are exceptional as grappling blood relations who could not be more distant despite their best efforts, struggling to communicate in ways the other will understand. The characters effectively depart from the usual circuitous bickering of a longstanding family argument: John looks past his alienation from the family, and the reasons for Bradley’s sharp negativity about his children realizing their dreams are explored. Ann is given depth and yearning that is even more rewarding than it is unexpected, a surprise reinforced by the script’s structure — even as the architect of the play, the playwright cannot control his family any more than he can the thunderstorm outside (gentle work by lighting designer Joel Klain and sound designer Julia Garlotte).
Viewers who enjoy feeling plugged in to the mind of the playwright will particularly revel in the masterfully executed structure and surprise of The Cocktail Hour. This extravagantly comic production leaves plenty of room for connection and discovery, and its openness to learn and develop its relationships is as crucial to the success of the show as its heightened characterizations and skillful punchlines. The work of Kuhl and company makes for an experience both comfortably personal and truthfully soul searching, which feels true to the intentions Gurney so adventurously laid bare.
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