The icy relationship that inspired ‘The Cocktail Hour’
A.R. Gurney's "The Cocktail Hour" is about a playwright whose parents are unhappy that he's written a play about them.
Want to guess what Gurney's mother said to him after she saw it in New York?
"I asked her, 'Did you like it?' And she said, 'Not much.' "
The playwright, 83, laughs about it now, but his parents' disdain for his work could be painful.
"So many playwrights that I've known, their parents are in the front row night after night, thinking that it's the best thing they've ever seen. That was not my experience," Gurney said.
"Maybe that's why I got so upset when I got bad reviews, and I've gotten many of them," he added. "Clive Barnes or Frank Rich or whoever it was, they took the place of my parents. They were the authority that was damning me."
He will have another chance to hear from the critics as the Huntington Theatre Company presents "The Cocktail Hour" at the Boston University Theatre. It begins previews Friday and runs through Dec. 15.
In the unabashedly autobiographical 1988 play, set a decade or so earlier, John arrives for dinner at his parents' home carrying the script of his new play about the family. Over a comically extended cocktail session — offstage, the cook is having trouble with the roast — he learns just how they feel about his writing and other matters. James Waterston plays John; Richard Poe and Maureen Anderman are Bradley and Ann, his parents; and Pamela J. Gray plays Nina, his sister.
"The meta-theatricality of this play is something that possibly hasn't been acknowledged much," director Maria Aitken said in a separate conversation. "It's a play about a play, and I think at the end of the play, you realize that you're watching the play that evolved from the action you're watching. It's all terribly tightly wound and coiled, and really interesting from that point of view."
Gurney's enduring hit is the two-person "Love Letters," which is widely produced. But plays such as "Children," "Scenes From American Life," and "The Dining Room" depict the end of the WASP privilege he grew up amid in Buffalo. With its booze-fueled banter, "The Cocktail Hour" is usually described as a comedy of manners, but it also depicts a family on the cusp of change.
"There are a lot of laughs in it, but I think there is an underlying ache," said Gurney, who goes by the family nickname "Pete."
"I don't know how the Huntington production is going to land. I don't want it to come out a sad play or even a Chekhovian play, where people smile through their tears. That's why [my parents'] generation and, to some degree, my generation, turned to the cocktail — as a way of covering and clouding the ache that might exist underneath."
Aitken says the play's comic surface has made for entertaining rehearsals but recognizes there's more to it. "It's got a whole kind of connective tissue of family tragedy, really, underneath. It's been fascinating to discover just how complicated it is. We've all been reeling to discover the sort of Chinese-boxes nature of the play, like Russian dolls, a play within a play within a play."
One more meta-theatrical twist: John's parents do admit to liking one of his previous works, which they had seen in a particular Boston venue.
"The son has a play that premiered actually in the BU Theatre. We saw a lot of synchronicity," said Peter DuBois, the Huntington's artistic director.
He said "The Cocktail Hour" hasn't had a major production in some time and was ripe for a revival.
"Even though it's very close to Pete Gurney's life in Buffalo, I think it very much speaks to our audience," DuBois said. "It's definitely about the Northeast establishment and Northeast establishment tradition. There's something kind of fun about that. I do think it's going to play better here than just about anywhere else."
Gurney said his late parents often felt he was attacking the family and ridiculing the world he came from. His father had died by the time "The Cocktail Hour" was finished, but Gurney promised his mother that it would never play in Buffalo while she was alive.
Ironically, Gurney learned about theater from his parents when he was growing up. "They would go down to New York and see, as they said, 'the plays,' and then they would come back to Buffalo and tell me about them. My father loved to go to the theater. He just didn't like to go to the contemporary theater."
It's no coincidence that the father in "The Cocktail Hour" is down on plays of that era, with their shouting and vulgar language and nudity. He's not too fond of the "smart-guy wisecracks" about the family in his son's work, either.
At Williams College, Gurney was two years behind composer Stephen Sondheim — they knew each other, but not well — and Gurney took over the student musical revue after Sondheim graduated. What may be most notable to Bostonians is that he had fellow student and future New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner at the piano.
After the Navy and graduate school at Yale, Gurney taught briefly at the Belmont Hill School at Belmont and then for two decades at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, he continued to write, mainly short plays that were produced in small venues like "that place behind the Harvard Coop where Joan Baez played" (Club 47). He and friends even formed their own coffeehouse theater group, New Theater for Now.
"Boston was not terribly hospitable to new plays," Gurney said. "I couldn't get arrested by the Charles Playhouse or David Wheeler's Theatre Company of Boston," although he praised the latter's work and says he learned a lot from Wheeler.
Eventually his plays began to get produced in New York, with boosts from a writing contest he won and a production at a BU theater workshop at Tanglewood. He finally left MIT and moved to New York to write full time in 1981. His success there with "The Dining Room" brought him his first major Boston production — in 1982 at the BU Theatre, the second show the Huntington ever put on.
He spoke by phone recently after a rehearsal for his latest play, "Family Furniture," at the Flea Theater, a downtown New York venue.
"You're thinking, how can a guy that just turned 83 even attempt to write a play during his doddering years, and I agree!" he said. "But the Flea has been very hospitable to me the last 10 years or so, and they have a much younger audience, which is a more exciting experience for me."
"Family Furniture" is an even earlier period piece than "The Cocktail Hour," but set among the same class of well-to-do Buffalo citizens. "I tend to write about that old sort of establishment culture and the cracks that are beginning to appear in it," Gurney said. "The fissures and problems are already beginning to appear in 1952."
One more family story: At the opening night of one of his early productions in New York, Gurney's parents were seated next to Barnes, then the powerful New York Times critic.
"My father turned to Clive Barnes during the play and said, 'Do you think this is any good? Why are they laughing at that? That's not funny.' I was in a bar across the street, and at intermission my agent ran out and said, 'Get rid of that father!' "
The play, Gurney said, closed the next day.