A dying breed of upper-middle-class WASPS trying to adjus to New Wave values that rub against the grain of their inflexible, traditional souls lies at the core of A.R. Gurney's witty play "The Cocktail Hour," on stage at Theatre Hopkins through May 26.
This outstanding production, excellently directed by Suzanne Pratt, is a droll, sophisticated work that is as tender as it is funny. Amusing references and comparisons to T.S. Eliot's "The Cocktail Party" are sprinkled throughout.
A contemporary drawing-room comedy, the show is essentially autobiographical in nature reflecting Gurney's difficult relationship with his father.
Only in the stage work a bonding is achieved between the two, and family relationships are clarified, unlike Gurney's real life experience.
In Gurney's work family secrets are revealed and tempers flare as old wounds are reopened and nurtured by the consumption of a large quantity of alcohol.
The playwright's great-grandfather's puzzling suicide (referred to in the play) evidently cast a heavy shadow over his grandfather's and father's lives. They both settled for a safe bourgeois world where servants, playing golf at the country club and the cocktail hour were sacred rituals.
"There is nothing more dangerous than the cocktail hour," says one of Gurney's characters in the play. "It has taken the place of evening prayers," jokes his stage father.
In the show the oldest son, John, a brooding playwright who has an annoying penchant for over analyzing everything, returns home to get permission to produce a realistic play he has written about his father.
Naturally the patriarch of the house is horrified and refuses; "Why can't you write about nice, trivial things?" His son agrees to wait until his father has passed on.
John is constantly seeking his father's approval and has always harbored a sneaking suspicion that he is adopted. This notion is given some weight by his very reserved mother's surprising confession that she once wrote a romantic novel in which a character like herself had a love affair with the man who groomed their horses.
Daughter Nina, who has married properly and done all the right things, enters the cocktail rite, which precedes the customary formal dinner, and becomes insulted when she finds she is only a minor character in John's play. She is suffering from an identity crisis and wants to prove herself by moving temporarily to another state to be part of a training program for seeing-eye dogs.
Jigger, the favored son, never appears. We learn through a telephone conversation that he has given up his business job and is headed for California to fulfill his dream of boat building.
The world is crumbling about the father as he sees his offspring taking the free paths he never could.
This local production of "The Cocktail Hour" is distinguished by the stupendous performance of Robert Walsh as the blustering, self-pitying, yet likable "head of the household."
Walsh's long, rambling monologues in the beginning, interrupted only by snippets of others' conversations, are priceless.
The actor's wife, Ruth Walsh, gives a thoroughly amusing performance as the feather-brained mother that is remindful of the studied mannerisms of a nancy reagan and the fey quality of a Gracie Allen
Harry B. Turner offers a fine, indept, probing characterization as the insecure playwright cansttly testing his parents' love.
Bethany Brown is endearingly comical as the frustrated daughter not content to be just a proper wife and mother.
* A pleasantly entertaining version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical, "The King and I," is on stage at the TowsonTowne Dinner Theatre through June 16. The show stars Dennis Knight as the exotic king of Siam who reluctantly learns Western ways from an independent English governess played by Sue Centurelli.
The show features nice performances, great old songs, and good choreography -- especially "The Ballet: Small House of Uncle Thomas" number -- and musical direction by Robert Jenkins. Good support is given by Bill Grauer, Colleen Gilpin and Richard Byrd.