July 17, 2002 - Last weekend, Arlington Players opened their summer show, "The Cocktail Hour," for a three-weekend run at the Gunston Arts Center’s Theatre One – their temporary home while their regualr stage, at the Thomas Jefferson Community Theater, is closed for renovations
The play is by Massachusetts-based playwright A.R. Gurney, best known for light drawing-room comedy. In "The Cocktail Hour" he uses the format to examine the relationships of a married couple and two of their three grown children.
It is a comedy more in form than in banter and dialogue, made up of gentle warmth rather than a series of jokes, gags or even witty rejoinders. No one would confuse Gurney with Neil Simon, let alone Oscar Wilde.
The entire evening takes place in the living room of Bradley and Ann, played by Philip Baedecker and Lauren Bloom, a well-to-do couple living in upstate New York. Arthur Pleasants, the set designer, has created a nicely detailed, warmly colorful environment that speaks of upper class gentility and stability for the home of the two.
Baedecker is the picture of self-satisfied success, as he examines his life as if it is coming to an end. He is proud of his accomplishments and defensive of his image in the community. Similarly, Bloom begins the evening looking like the perfect hostess, gracious to a fault even when the only guests are two children, home for a visit.
Lisa Forrest is their daughter Nina, bright and confident, with some of the better wisecracks of the evening.
The family is taken aback when son John, played — and occasionally overplayed — by Jim Williamson, reveals why he has returned to his family, if only for one night’s visit. It seems that he is a playwright, and the latest product of his pen is semi-autobiographical.
While he has changed the names, it will be clear to any of his parents’ friends or acquaintances who see the play that it is really about this Bradley, Ann and their children. John wants his parents’ permission before he publishes such a revealing work.
Over pre-supper cocktails, John’s take on family events sparks debates among other family members, who argue with his interpretation of events and discuss their differing memories.
Ann is concerned that their friends will think they are all "Republicans and alcoholics." The characterizations is unfair, she says: "only the latter is true." Nina is upset, because her dramatic counterpart is only a "supporting character," not the leading role.
But it is Bradley’s reaction that drives the events of the evening. He has some history he’d rather not see explored in public — or even within the confines of the family. Indeed, he sees the play and the discussion of it as threatening to the well-established facade of his life.
Director Dave Costa keeps the focus on exchanges between the characters, instead of punching the gags. The approach works well because it makes the flow of the story clear, and at the same time gives the actors opportunities to play off each other, to add their own reactions and interjections in true conversational style.
It is a civilized approach to a story about people accustomed to a civilized behavior, but who find their civility under pressure from revelations that emerge during the cocktail hour. Of course, the libations have helped loosen the constraints, allowing long hidden truths to be explored.