June 11, 2008

A High Old Time with “The Cocktail Hour”

Perhaps the best compliment I can pay the new TBTB revival of A.R. Gurney’s The Cocktail Hour is that I didn’t realize the company, whose full name is Theater Breaking Through Barriers, had previously been known as Theater By The Blind until someone told me so during the intermission.

The company was formed in 1979 with sighted actors recording plays for the blind but it eventually began to work with blind and low vision actors. Its early plays dealt with issues involving visually impaired people but over the years the company has widened its repertoire to include everything from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller. It has also expanded its mission to embrace actors with other disabilities (in last year’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the actress playing Hermia was wheelchair-bound) hence the more encompassing name change (click here to read more about the company’s history).

But, as I said, I didn’t know any of this when I decided to see The Cocktail Hour. I simply like Gurney’s plays. Their upper-class WASP settings and rituals are now considered very non-PC but I get a kick out of them and they are as exotic and fascinating to me as those of the Masai are to other people. In the spirit of this obviously semi-autobiographical piece about a playwright who is seeking permission from his parents to put on a play about them and arrives at their home as they’re settling in for their customary pre-dinner drinks, I stopped for one of my own at the West Bank Cafe across the street from the Kirk Theatre at Theatre Row where the show is running through June 29.

While I was nursing my first glass of wine at the bar, a man came in and took the stool next to mine. I don’t usually like to bother people but, emboldened by a second glass, I turned and said, “Excuse me but aren’t you Bernie Gersten?” And it was indeed the executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater, who had come in for a quick drink before meeting his wife to see Saved, the new musical about kids at an evangelical high school that is playing at Playwrights Horizons. We chatted about the upcoming Tonys and the recently decided Democratic primary and how although he is 85, Gersten has no plans to retire. Which is very good news for theater lovers because he's always been—and continues to be—a class act.

I then ran across the street to The Cocktail Hour but the play started late because the traffic outside had been stopped to keep people away from the nearby New York Times tower, where, for the second time that day, someone was scaling the outside of the 52-story building. The delay wasn’t too long and the audience was in a good mood, clearly looking forward to what is essentially a drawing room comedy since the play takes place entirely in the family living room with the mother, father, son and a daughter who stops by occasionally disappearing offstage to check on how the new cook was dealing with dinner or to take a phone call.

Not a lot happens in The Cocktail Hour but there are some good lines, a lot of good spirit and good performances by
Pamela Sabaugh as the daughter, John Viselli as the son, TBTB co-artistic director (and the only sight-impaired member of the cast) George Ashiotis as the father and particularly by Melanie Boland who made a delightfully daffy mother. Everyone at the performance I attended—both onstage and off—seemed to be having a high old time.

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