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Ways of the WASPS 

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THE COCKTAIL HOUR

Royal-George Theatre

The atmosphere's very old-line Broadway. Very Lunt-Fontanne. Steven Rubin's solid, comfortably posh living-room set practically cries out to be filled with white folks in nice clothes, drinking martinis and making amusing remarks. The whole comfortably posh Royal-George Theatre cries out for them, in fact--and the script obliges: we're given an entire family of well-spoken, half-sloshed WASPs wearing Burberry and Saks. Broadway veterans Barry Nelson and Elizabeth Wilson supply the obligatory pseudo-Lunt star coupling.

Yes, it's all very Great White Way. And that's the intention. Though it seems ready--even compelled, at times--to do just the opposite, A.R. Gurney's The Cocktail Hour ultimately means to celebrate and eulogize a lost aristocracy by celebrating and eulogizing one of its favorite lost entertainments.

Two of its favorite lost entertainments, actually: not only the upper-crust Broadway comedy, but the ritual drinky-wink before dinner, as well. A sort of a WASP Isaac Bashevis Singer committed to the task of chronicling his own vanished tribe, Gurney's best known for scripts like The Dining Room, in which the conventions of gracious living serve to expose the values, tensions, traditions, and contradictions of gracious lives. The Cocktail Hour applies this strategy to that "sacred" hour of each evening when the Mayflower gentility seem to feel a communal urge to get convivially smashed.

The strategy's gotten balled up this time around, however. Balled up intellectually by Gurney's ambitious attempt to equate the cocktail hour with the last, say, 50 years of American popular theater; to conflate both with a dying WASP tradition; and to present all these elements in terms of his own, just barely fictionalized autobiography. Balled up emotionally by his vast ambivalence toward the whole mess.

It goes like this: John (read Gurney) is a middle-aged playwright who's long since become alienated from his all-the-right-clubs upbringing, but who nonetheless returns to it over and over again in his plays. He's just written a script called The Cocktail Hour, which centers on his uneasy relationship with his father--a hail-fellow sort named Bradley--and now he's sitting in Bradley's upstate New York living room partaking of a few cocktails himself and asking Bradley's permission to go ahead and produce said script.

Expecting to find nothing more in it than "a lot of smart-guy wisecracks about our family, our way of life," Bradley refuses even to read the script, much less endorse it for performance. But that's not the real issue, anyway; John wouldn't have bothered to ask for Bradley's imprimatur if he had any genuine intention of putting The Cocktail Hour onstage. No, the play's just his unacknowledged pretext for confronting his parents with various traumas and resentments and bits of unfinished oedipal business.

Of which he has a great many. A seasoned analysand with a sophisticated sense of grievance, John's looked deeply into his belly button and come out with all kinds of unattractive things to say about his upbringing. And he seizes on the cocktail hour as the most deliciously inopportune time to say them.

The artful twist here is that even as John's busy subverting cocktail hour decorum on one level, Gurney sets him up to subvert Broadway drawing-room comedy conventions on another. Partly by modeling John so clearly on himself and partly by suggesting that the Cocktail Hour we're watching is in fact a later draft of the Cocktail Hour John claims to have written, Gurney coyly creates a Pirandellian hall-of-mirrors effect: The author of The Cocktail Hour, presented onstage in The Cocktail Hour as the author of an unstaged and incomplete play called The Cocktail Hour, which is finishing itself even as we watch.

The device reaches its apotheosis about halfway through act one, when John's mother Ann advises him to write books rather than plays and he replies that he "can't. . . . I'm caught, I'm trapped in this old medium." As John, Mark Metcalf punctuates this passage by nervously eyeing the proscenium arch; we get the strong message that John knows he's a character in a comedy, and we expect Gurney to use what John knows as a way of taking that comedy apart--of turning it inside out and exposing its inner workings, its hard-core assumptions.

But he doesn't. Just the opposite. Rather than deconstructing the conventions of the old-line Broadway comedy--which would, not incidentally, mean deconstructing both his WASP roots and his pseudofictional family--Gurney quickly rallies behind them. Old values are reasserted on every level, magical reconciliations take place, and everything comes out just as it might at the end of a 50-year-old light entertainment: happy and secure. And not the least bit true.

Barry Nelson and Elizabeth Wilson demonstrate the craftsmanlike best of the Broadway tradition, playing Bradley and Ann in a fascinatingly tic-ish style that manages to be flamboyant and genuine at the same time. Between his bluff confusion and her cheery-tense blankness, Nelson and Wilson's old folks look sneakily like the Reagans. Jean DeBaer is also vivid as John's sister, Nina.

I want to say that Mark Metcalf lacks the rage he ought to manifest as John, but with Gurney himself expressing so much ambivalence--not just toward the character, but toward the play as a whole--it doesn't seem fair. The real conflict in The Cocktail Hour isn't in what's onstage, but what isn't. It's in Gurney's struggle and failure to actually execute the rebellion he seemed just on the brink of making.

YOU HOLD MY HEART BETWEEN YOUR TEETH

Red Moon Theater
at the Organic Theater Greenhouse

Blair Thomas's You Hold My Heart Between Your Teeth looks at first as if it's going to be even better behaved than The Cocktail Hour turned out to be. With its cute banners and its little artifacts, its quotations from Cherokee legends and its promise of a puppet show, it seems to be offering a baby-talk love story for grown-ups. People can get awfully snivelly around puppets.

But the cute banner gets ripped to shreds in the first seconds, and the piece itself--though heavily influenced by the dreamy, naive, stick-figure simplicity of Peter Schumann's Bread & Puppet Theater--plays powerfully against its apparent preciousness to present a disconcertingly dark vision of what it's like to lose your heart.

Literally, to lose it. This is a boy-meets-girl tale in which the girl wakes up at the end of her romantic idyll to find a hole in her chest where her heart used to be. Far from being elated at this living transmigration, she feels she's been robbed and sets off in pursuit of her property.

Along the way she encounters a bunch of callous commuters, a skeptical detective, and a cryptic fortune-teller. She wanders through a city of shadows and watches a black comedy. She interviews an oracular moon and a hippie-hedonist sun. Much of what she does, sees, and says smacks of that awful, pseudopoetic sweetness to which puppet shows are so susceptible--but Thomas's sharp wit, his technical resourcefulness, and his essentially bleak take on his subject matter all work not merely to steer the piece away from Lambchop sugariness, but to set up a contrast with it that's ultimately all the more devastating.

Larisa Eastman exploits a fine, wry deadpan as the young woman, David Isaacson's head is hilarious as the detective, and Michael Barry plays the Sun's Son with more poise and presence than I've ever seen in a child actor. The puppets, by various hands, are sweet, funny, and sad.

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