Theater

This Time the Bottle Let Us Down

I didn't much like The Cocktail Hour, which surprised me. Not only because it's one of the more amusing and sophisticated of A.R. Gurney's comedies, but because the company presenting the play--and the director who staged it--normally offers more muscular fare.

This time out, director Betty St. George and her eponymous theater company appear to be napping. The lackluster production eats up several hours with sluggish pacing, colorless performances and unimaginative staging. Considering the troupe's last couple of productions--and Betty St. George's knack for reeling in big talent from out of town--that's surprising.

This is the same company and director that, earlier this season, brought Los Angeles actor Patti Suarez to town for a splendid production of Christopher Durang's Laughing Wild. That show, when it finally closed after numerous extensions, was followed by several weeks of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, another stirring two-character play that featured strong performances and that was extended well past its posted closing date.

The Cocktail Hour also has been extended, though that may be a tribute more to Gurney's writing than to this slightly drunken production. His cynical humor saves a story about a playwright, John, who visits his family and asks permission to produce a play about it called The Cocktail Hour.

While the family members drink themselves into a stupor, parents and children rehash family history and discuss the collapse of the American theater. John's sister objects to his script because he has given her such a minor role in it. His parents protest the sordid content of contemporary plays--the actors, they say, are always swearing and tearing off their clothes.

This particular production might have benefited from some profanity and disrobing. Although Maggie Wade is an imposing, handsome woman who plays a nice drunk scene, her acting lacks focus and depth. John Hammond gives an awkward and slightly dazed performance as the playwright, and Aisha Hackett is unintelligible as the troubled sister. Only Doc Huston, who attempts Gurney's manipulative patriarch, performs with any authority. I found myself leaning forward in my seat, willing the performers to act a little more.

Gurney's plays have simple scenic requirements; usually they call for a single set, as with this show and his brilliant The Dining Room, another family-at-odds piece. The playwright's purpose is that small theater companies should spend their money on capable actors to interpret his wise words rather than on elaborate set pieces. In this production, the furniture eclipses the actors.

It's a little late in the run of this play to expect the players to warm much more to the material, even for a company as talented as this one. But St. George Productions promises bigger things with its next project: Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, for which the production schedule runs six months. A half year is ample time to ready any production, and time enough to let us forget The Cocktail Hour.

The Cocktail Hour continues through Sunday, December 8, at St. George Theatre Downstairs, 4700 North Central, Suite 112.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela