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Photograph by Ron Severdia
Over Ice: Eric Burke and Beth Deitchman co-star in 'The Cocktail Hour.'

Shaken, Stirred

RVP puts family on the rocks in first-rate 'Cocktail Hour'

By David Templeton

T he Cocktail Hour by A. R. Gurney is a plotless play about a play with no plot. In two acts of gently twisting dialogue and beautifully escalating tension, the playwright shows off his understanding of the power of theater and his sense of the sharp-edged love-hate- love dynamics of family relationships, all while spinning a play that is rich in poetry and resonant with meaning—whether or not anything actually ever happens.

It is not an easy play to direct, nor a simple one to act, yet in the Ross Valley Players' sweet-and-salty new production, director Mary Ann Rodgers leads her perfectly pitched cast through Gurney's comedy-drama with a light hand, beautifully sly misdirection and a clear sense of feeling for the themes that, in this marvelous and lovely show, makes Gurney's rough-hewn poetry look effortless and inevitable. While not claiming to have caught every recent play staged by the 77-year-old RVP, the oldest continually operating community theater company on the West Coast, I can say that The Cocktail Hour is the best, most complete and satisfying RVP production this reviewer has seen to date.

John (deceptively underplayed by Eric Burke) is a frustrated, recently sober part-time playwright who, sometime in the mid-1970s, has returned to his family home to obtain permission from his stuffy upper-middle-class father, Bradley (T. Louis Weltz), to produce a new play that is based, all too conspicuously, on the family. The manuscript, which almost becomes a character itself, is titled The Cocktail Hour , inspired by John's parents' near-religious nightly ritual of throwing back stiff drinks in the living room before stumbling to the dining room for dinner. This, we are told, is how "civilized" families behave.

In his Cocktail Hour , John caustically describes his wound-up, dog-loving sister, Nina (Beth Deitchman), as one who "keeps everything in an amazing state of suspended animation." As synchronicity would have it, John has arrived just in time for the family's cocktail hour, which on this night stretches out longer than usual due to some domestic pot-roast problems with the never-seen cook, either named Sharon Marie, Sheryl Marie or Shirley Marie, depending on which family member is discussing her.

John's mother, Ann (Christine Macomber, delightfully peeling back layer after emotional layer), is appalled at the thought of yet another play based on her son's obvious family-directed suspicion and hostility ("Plays are so noisy," she says), but not as appalled as Bradley, who upon hearing that he is the central character, offers John $20,000 not to produce it.

One of the delights of Gurney's brilliant script is the way it begins to mirror the fictional script described by John in bits and pieces, including the dramatic twist that comes just before intermission and the climactic "kicker" that concludes every effective play, this one included. Sometimes played with vaudevillian exaggeration, the production stays just this side of farce, gracefully maintaining the believability of genuinely shaded characters. Nina's only complaint is that her role in the play is too small. "Do I get to bring in trays or do I only carry a spear?" she wants to know.

The set by Bruce Lackovic is a wonder of interior design, with multiple layers of East Coast kitsch, from the garish green bubbles of the all-important bar area to the thrust-stage living room—complete with comfy couch and tasteful curios—to the fireplace and encyclopedia-laden bookshelf, which earns its own laughs every time John contradicts his father's "facts" by offering to look it up and see. Says Bradley, "We are not going to destroy the rhythm of the conversation with a lot of disruptive excursions to the bookcase."

The dialogue is both satirical and authentically bitter, a balancing act pulled off by a cast capable of tugging hearts and provoking laughter in the same breath. Remarking on the way critics have responded to the family as portrayed in her son's previous plays, Ann observes, "They think we are all superficial, Republican and alcoholic, when only the latter is true." That line, both funny and sad, is typical of Gurney's playfully wise, magical script.

His best trick, however, is the way he brings things to a stunningly grounded, unexpectedly loving conclusion. While some playwrights might punish such families for their sins, Gurney seeks ultimately to forgive, turning what might have been a gut-busting tragedy into something much more transcendent: a long days' journey into light.

'The Cocktail Hour' runs Thursday–Sunday through Feb. 17 at the Barn Theater within the Ross Art & Garden Center. Friday–Saturday at 8pm; Jan. 24–Feb. 17, Thursday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2pm. $16–$20; Jan. 18 at 7pm, pay-what-you-will tickets available. Barn Theatre, Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross 415.456.9555.

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