NEW LEBANON, N.Y. >> Playwright A.R. Gurney Jr. is having a lot of sly fun — some of it obvious, some of it not — in his 1988 play, "The Cocktail Hour," although it's hard to find where the fun, obvious or not, really is in director Phil Rice's largely indifferent, emotionally inert production at The Theater Barn.
This semi-autobiographical play unfolds over the course of an early autumn weekend evening in the unnamed suburban Buffalo, N.Y., home of a retired businessman named Bradley (Steve King) and his wife, Ann (Meg Dooley) during cocktail hour, which, due to a series of mishaps in the kitchen, keeps being extended.
Joining Ann and Bradley are their married daughter, Nina (Colleen Lovett), and the younger of their two sons, John (Eric Derringer), a husband, father, and successful editor at a leading New York publishing house who harbors ambitions of becoming just as successful as a playwright. He's had two plays produced, modestly and unsuccessfully, but this new play of his, titled, not coincidentally, "The Cocktail Hour," holds promise. He's about to sign a contract for a production in New York. Before he signs, however, he wants his father's permission because, unlike John's previous work, this one "strikes close to home," he says.
On the surface, "The Cocktail Hour" is another urbane Gurney look at the dynamics of family within a somewhat privileged environment. Dysfunction gains a certain witty elegance, soaked here in dry martinis, white wine and Cutty Sark.
But Gurney also is having fun not only with the conventions of theater — and his own writing — but also the family drama, the dysfunctional family drama, which fuels so much of American playwriting. John lives in the shadow of his older brother, Jigger, who never appears but who is a presence nonetheless. There are suggestions of a dark secret that connects to John's sense of emotional abandonment by a father who has shown great skill at making a life built on the security of his wife's personal wealth. As it happens, John does make a crucial discovery about his father and their relationship but it comes with a little bit of a wink from Gurney, who has great faith in the institution of family, stresses and all.
But where Gurney's writing skips along knowingly and lightly, this production moves cautiously and at arm's length; concerned more with manner than matter.
As Bradley, King uses a monochromatic palette in a performance that is more dutiful than convincing.
In the role of his martini-loving wife, Ann, Dooley's vocal quality is as graceful and posed as her hand motions. Only occasionally looking at the people with whom she is engaged in conversation, Dooley's Ann, for the most part, gazes upward and outward, speaking as if she were caught in some vapory spell.
Derringer, despite some uncertainties with his lines on opening night, and Lovett are far more successful at catching Gurney's rhythms and nuances, especially in a scene between the two of them at the start of the second act that finds authenticity and commitment in a production sorely lacking both.
What: "The Cocktail Hour" by A.R. Gurney Jr. Directed by Phil Rice
With: Steve King, Meg Dooley, Eric Derringer, Colleen Lovett
Where: The Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, N.Y.
When: Through Sept. 25. Evenings — Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Sunday at 2
Tickets: $27, $25