Review: The Cocktail Hour by A.R. Gurney

Vagabond Theatre presents The Cocktail Hour by A.R. Gurney

March 23, 24, 25 (2pm), 30, 31 at Aultsville Theatre 8 pm

Producer: Katie Burke
Director: Michael Togneri
Stage Manager: Mike MacAnany

Cast: Pat Haaksman, Jean Leger, Pat Roddy, Bill Roddy

Assistant Stage Manager: Micheline Lacasse
Prompter: Ashley McCool
Costumes: Betty Chaput
Properties: Marjorie McCoy
Set design: Adrian Black
Set Decoration: Adrian Black
Sound/Lighting: Glenn Cooper
Poster/Ticket design: Adrian Black
Advertising: Nancy Munro
Program: Mark Enns, Adrian Black
Tickets: Garth Wigle

Production reviewed: March 24, 8 pm

Talk about a delightful evening of theatre: a lovely layered and nuanced full-length script, a subtle functional set, four intricate believable characters, a director who knows what he is doing — yummy!

Background: we have been attending so many disappointingly short, one-act plays produced on the professional stages of Ottawa that we were despairing of attending a full meal of theatre again. I needed a satisfying sit-down with a good intelligent play that would absorb me, carry me off into a world of its own.

At last, with The Cocktail Hour, I feel satisfied.

There was a great deal to like here. Under the assured helmsmanship of Michael Togneri, this look at family life evolved in its own desultory manner into an intriguing odyssey of discovery. A son returns home to seek his somewhat dotty father’s permission to have his play about the family produced on the New York stage. Without reading it, the father sees the play as an attack, and refuses permission. Gurney does not take the easy way out and turn the disagreement into a confrontation, however: the son agrees to shelve the project; but the script still serves as the catalyst for some evocative, even poignant family interaction and discovery.

I really liked the calm, deliberate performance of Jean Leger, around whose character’s quest the whole play evolves. There was no flailing here: Leger portrays the subtlely anguished son with sensitivity and restraint. The eldest child in the family, the son feels patronized and alienated from his family, but this is an alienation encrusted within years of polite, civilized consideration and withdrawal.

Contrasting is a nuanced, often comic performance by Pat Haaksman as the faithful, hopeful daughter who steps in to prepare the meal that has been ruined by a conspiracy of superficiality and self-indulgent neglect. Haaksman gives us a deliciously quirky positive contrast to the serious son , whose pain is paradoxically respectful and resentful .

The focal subject of this angst is the self-centred father-mother combo (Pat and Bill Roddy) who function almost as one character. Bill Roddy gives a layered gentle performance as the hypochondraical self-pitying father who can demolish with a kind evasion. Pat Roddy counterpunches thematically with some delightfully comic suggestions. Both of the Roddys have a sure comic timing that is never forced, always right on.

All four of these characters have comic moments, and all four treat them with their own comic sensibilities, whether it is the son’s blasé Freudian anatomical references or the daughter’s bubbly canine retorts, the father’s skewed fascination with morbidity or the mother’s placating diplomacy. What a rich corpus for actors and audience alike to feast on.

Adrian Black’s clever set uses the cyclorama and a lighting wash instead of flats to give us a high airy setting that takes advantage of Aultsville Theatre’s high stage. Set in front of the cyclorama are four slender vertical slabs that give the whole minimalist setting warmth and elegance that complement the action. Black’s engaging poster and program cover are head and shoulders above most promotional art in this city.

This is a play for a discriminating, thoughtful audience. Gurney has set up a self-referential situation in which he can telegraph that we are coming to the intermission or the end by referring to the action of the script sitting on the table. It is a clever device, which I found quite intriguing; it evoked emotion by focusing our attention on the emotional evolution of the situation.

I can see why Togneri likes this play: it has a sailing theme threaded throughout; in fact, Gurney is quite skilful in his exploitation of themes: dogs, sailing, casual cruelties of parents and children, earning a living, husbands and wives — all of it trickles through the play, developing and culminating most satisfactorily in these steady hands. Well, Michael, I like it too.

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About riverwriter

Poet, playwright, duplicate bridge player, website designer, cottager, husband, father, grandfather, former athlete, carpenter, computer helper for my friends, theatre designer, backstage polymath, retired teacher of highschool English, drama, art, a baritone singer in a barbershop quartet, who knows what else? wordcurrents is on Facebook: Doug also has a Facebook page, "Incognitio", related to his novels.
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