Joan Didion famously observed that “writers are always selling somebody out.’’
The thing is, though, writers seldom see it that way. Instead, they are likely to view themselves as principled truth-tellers, even, or especially, when they’re writing about their own families.
That was the case with the writer preparing to spill the beans in a family memoir in Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,’’ presented earlier this year at SpeakEasy Stage Company, and that’s the case with a dramatist named John in A.R. Gurney’s “The Cocktail Hour,’’ now at Huntington Theatre Company under the direction of Maria Aitken.
It’s the 1970s in Buffalo, and John, portrayed by James Waterston, is breaking the news to his upper-crust WASP clan — father Bradley (Richard Poe, superb), mother Ann (Maureen Anderman, ditto), and sister Nina (Pamela J. Gray) — that he has penned an autobiographical play focused heavily on them, especially the gruff, remote paterfamilias.
“I have to call ’em as I see ’em, Pop,’’ explains the son. Grumbles the father: “That’s what I’m afraid of.’’
There’s friction aplenty, but truly explosive showdowns and searing revelations do not really form the heart of “The Cocktail Hour,’’ which premiered in 1988. Whenever these characters do land in a raw place, emotionally speaking, they don’t stay there for long. The playwright’s own reticence asserts itself, and it’s time for someone to mix another drink and make another joke.
As a comedy of manners, Gurney’s play succeeds. If it’s martini-dry wit you crave, you’ll find it here. “The Cocktail Hour’’ is briskly entertaining, and even touching in spots. But it feels as if Gurney left a better play on the table. You can’t help wishing this talented writer had dug deeper into the issues he raises, especially the question of loyalty to family vs. loyalty to self, and the scar tissue that can form when self-expression is systematically stifled. “The Cocktail Hour’’ is too often content to glide cleverly across its own polished surface, a tendency that culminates in an ending that feels like a cop-out.
Anyone who saw Aitken’s Huntington productions of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,’’ Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,’’ or Willy Russell’s “Educating Rita’’ knows she is a dab hand at depicting small-scale, close-quarters encounters where civility is fraying at the seams. With “The Cocktail Hour,’’ she subtly draws our attention to the way Gurney toys with the line between life and theater. The play John has written is itself called “The Cocktail Hour,’’ and in his encounter with his family the writer is not just returning to the source of his inspiration but also, in effect, revising and adding to that play as he goes along. At one point, he instigates an exchange with his mother by informing her that his play is “missing an obligatory scene’’: a showdown with her.
Allen Moyer’s handsomely appointed set — with its gleaming chandelier, patterned wallpaper, piano, and comfortable furnishings — conveys just the right atmospheric blend of coziness and formality. Parents Bradley and Ann reside in a bygone era, with an air of privileged entitlement and a host of unexamined assumptions that can make them seem — to our recession-era eyes — as divorced from the real world as the Crawley family in season one of “Downton Abbey.’’ But Poe and Anderman deliver vividly particularized performances that transcend caricature and locate the humanity within this difficult duo.
Waterston, so fine in the Huntington’s “Private Lives’’ opposite Bianca Amato, overemphasizes John’s callowness in “The Cocktail Hour,’’ though I think the actor is hamstrung by the fact that his character is not fully developed (despite the fact he’s based on Gurney himself). Gray fares better as sister Nina, capturing the poignancy of a woman determined to transcend the minor role she’s been assigned — in John’s play and in the life of her family — by plunging into work with seeing-eye dogs.
There are elements of social satire in “The Cocktail Hour.’’ Gurney has fun with the fact that the family members can’t get straight the name of the cook whose offstage struggles to cook a roast furnish a pretext for the family to remain in the living room, quaffing cocktails and arguing about John’s play.
There are moments, too, that register in ways the playwright could not have intended, such as when John keeps offering to look things up while reaching for, of all things, a book. It’s a reminder that they’re living in a pre-Google age — and that the parents are not the only endangered species onstage.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.