By Chris Lane
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Contrary to the findings of the recent U.S. census, the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) is merrily alive and doing quite well. In plays such as The Dining Room, Sylvia and Love Letters, playwright A.R. Gurney documents the habits and foibles of this so-called vanishing breed, and The Cocktail Hour (1989), given a very dry, bracing production from Company OnStage, is another of his quiet, yet precisely lethal, autopsies.
With drinks poured and consumed so prodigiously, the cocktail hour is "sacred," states family patriarch Bradley (Keith Lindloff), a time when one unwinds after a hectic day at work and talks things over with the family before dinner (cooked and served by staff). It's a time that has conveniently taken the place of evening prayers, pronounces "Pop," pouring himself another Scotch. Like the effect of so many liberal libations, Hour sneaks up on you and leaves you a bit untethered. Without warning, you suddenly wake up on the floor, not quite knowing how you got there.
We don't know the last names of the characters in this razor-sharp dissection, only that the immediate family lives in upstate New York, is well off, never talks about anything unpleasant and doesn't know the name of the help. Cheryl, Sharon and Sheila are variations of what they call this offstage employee, who has recently replaced the last worker they can't remember. Oh, yes, lest I forget, they drink a lot. It's what keeps them functioning. The more looped they are, the more coherent they become. That's when all those buried, unpleasant topics nobody wanted to talk about earlier begin to be uncovered. That's when you'd better seek the nearest shelter.
The Cocktail Hour
Through April 16. $13-$15.
So, during the cocktail hour in this well-appointed living room — given a nice upper-crust sheen with floral arrangements, tasteful Asian prints and ubiquitous drink trolley by designer L. Robert Westeen — second son John (Louis Crespo), a none-too-successful playwright living in New York, arrives to ask Pop's permission to use him and mother Ann (Susan Blair) as characters in his latest play. It's called The Cocktail Hour, which Dad thinks is a stupid title for a play, but then, he doesn't think much of modern drama, with its shouting, profanities and actors who shed their clothes at the least provocation. "Nobody goes to the theater," he proclaims, but nobody is going to make fools of his family, either. Certainly not his son. No, he won't permit it. Subject closed. Let's have another Scotch.
Cool and pulled together in her tailored gray suit, upswept hair and perfectly accessorized strand of pearls, Ann refuses to discuss such an unsavory topic. She softly wonders why her son couldn't write a sophisticated comedy, something that the Lunts would have starred in, although the suggestion sounds like a command. Being the subject of a play would be like having your name in the paper, she shudders, asking for another martini. "Just a splash, please, and I mean it this time," she keeps repeating throughout the evening. It's best not to be talked about at all. Without raising an eyebrow, an activity that might show interest, if not emotion, she chides John for throwing the family into unnecessary disarray. She agrees totally with her husband: no play. Why not write a book instead, she advises with a disarming friendliness; they're so much quieter. Plays are so noisy.
John doesn't know where to turn. He's determined to see his play a success, even though Pop offers him a big fat check to give it up. Spoiled sister Nina (Melanie Martin), the "gravy train girl," is no help to her brother at all once she finds out that she, too, is in the play, albeit in a minor role, just the type of position she plays in her real-life family. Eldest son "Jigger" — how appropriately named — makes an offstage appearance via telephone, and the family's loving concern sets John on edge. Suddenly we realize that the play John has written is the play we're watching. It's one of those theatrical reveals that feel so right. There are more reversals and family secrets to be discovered, but Gurney keeps the drama light, especially during Act I, which is terrifically tempered by Mom's sphinxlike demeanor and Dad's comic pronouncements about life, domestic servants and the theater.
Although it takes awhile to believe that gruff Lindloff is a true blueblood, his Bradley wins us over soon enough with his underlying twinkle. Blair, as the detached Ann, is to the manor born, deliciously deadpan and icy, smoothing over the family tempests with an overlay of gin. Martin plays rudderless sister Nina with the playful patrician air of an MGM starlet or a Philip Barry heroine. And Crespo, as playwright John, catches the right notes of desperation and resentment in his role of what he assumes is secondary son, humored by his family for his "amusing little hobby of a profession."
Under director Janet Hansen, Gurney's well-lubricated quartet staggers adroitly, never losing their balance, and mixes comedy and drama into a most refreshing beverage.