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Steve Feeney

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Posted: October 20, 2014

Equal-opportunity lampooning and plenty of wit in Public Theatre’s “The Cocktail Hour”

Written by: Steve Feeney
Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

Meant to provide a pleasant, winding-down period as late-afternoon turns to early-evening, the time certain families traditionally set aside for “drinks” can easily descend, after the glow of the first round has faded, into something unsettling.

That’s certainly the case with the well-to-do family that gathers onstage in the season opener for Lewiston’s Public Theatre. Tongues loosen and old and new grievances gradually spill forth as two aging parents and two of their three adult children gather around the martinis and scotch while a servant prepares dinner.

A.R. Gurney’s 1988 play “The Cocktail Hour” takes place in a well-appointed, upstate New York home in the mid-1970s. The play is pretty much equal-opportunity in its lampooning of the period’s upscale social order and that order’s countercultural nemeses, while also taking some amusing shots at the theater profession. Gurney never allows the play’s potentially more serious side to undercut the humor for long. There may have been a deeper drama lurking in the back of Gurney’s mind but this one stands fast as a witty variation on an old-style comedy of manners. The author seem to agree with one of his characters that it’s best to avoid becoming “unattractive.”

Stage and screen veteran Mike Genovese’s plays Bradley, the patriarch of the family, as the sort of man who’s made a career and a life by handling business and social situations in essentially the same way. He insists that everyone accept a world in which privilege and taste keeps everything in place and running smoothly. He believes he knows what right and what’s wrong with the world and, most importantly to the play, what sort of lives his children should be living.

A sour note arrives for a family visit in the person of middle child John, a playwright who announces that he’s written a play that “cuts pretty close to home” in depicting his family. Kyle Knauf plays John with a good deal of his father’s stilted, theatrical sense of conversation. He and Genovese work well together in conveying their wariness of each other’s intent, though they couch their contentiousness in laughably polite erudition. Knauf also has a Nathan Lane-ish way with non-verbal comedic takes that frequently cracked up the large matinee audience on Sunday.

Ellen Crawford takes the role of matriarch to the clan and is good at balancing her character’s devotion to the out-of-date lifestyle her husband champions with her motherly insight into the nature of what threatens it and her children’s well-being. While often welcoming “a splash more” booze before dinner, Crawford’s mom is endearing in her role as the gradually solidified ground on which this family stands.

Beth Hylton rounds out the cast as younger daughter Nina. Hylton has some hilarious moments as she explains her love of animals and goes on about her brother making her only a minor character in his play.

The laughs are spread around nicely in the two-hour-including-intermission show. Superficial critics and vulgar playwrights, not to mention Freudian psychiatrists, get lambasted along the way. The indignities and lack of respectably which are forever menacing their world are continually discussed by the family.

With its quality furnishings, but not ostentatious, the set by Jennifer B. Madigan captures the casual, “old money” refinement this family tries to preserve. Likewise, the costumes by Joan Mather speak of a genteel life where things are confortably as they ought to be.

It is under Janet Mitchko’s thoughtful direction, particularly in its attention to comedic timing, that this fine cast can reveal how, even in the “suspended animation” of a cocktail hour, change becomes inevitable.

“The Cocktail Hour” by The Public Theatre

WHERE: 31 Maple St, Lewiston
REVIEWED: Sunday, October 19 (matinee); continues through October 26
TICKETS: $20 (discounts available)
FMI: 207-782-3200; thepublictheatre.org

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