The Cocktail Party @ Beckett Theatre, New York

cast list
Mark Alhadeff, Jeremy Beck, Ben Beckley, Lauren English, Cynthia Harris, Simon Jones, Joack Koenig, Erika Rolfsrud, Celia Smith

directed by
Scott Alan Evans
A drawing room comedy has a definite pace associated with it. It requires this bouncy pace, which allows for a wit and a lightness that invites for bon mots, plentiful drinks and uncomfortable situations to be handled skillfully. A good drawing room comedy should skim along the surface of conversation with only ripples to register the deeper meaning and rocky shoals just beneath the surface. Despite T.S. Eliot’s brilliant writing, the cast of The Cocktail Hour as presented by the Actors Company Theatre doesn’t infuse the mixture with the right level of repartee needed to make this work hum along effortlessly.

Instead, the first scene starts off leaden, depending too heavily on the mystery of a missing hostess, failing to entrust that the audience will comprehend that the situation is uncomfortable without highlighting it in neon. What comes of this is not an uncomfortable cocktail party, but an uncomfortable show. The real pity is that the show picks up from there. The following scenes in the first act work well, and the final scene in the first act, full of husband-and-wife banter, plays beautifully.
The Cocktail Party was one of T.S. Eliot’s most successful plays with an extended run in London and a Tony Award earned for Best Play in New York in 1950. This revival sixty years later shows the play has aged, but that in itself isn’t an impediment to enjoying the show. The show revolves around a husband and wife who host a cocktail party, but the wife is missing, and another mysterious, unexpected guest is present.The husband and wife are handled very well by Jack Koenig and Erika Rolfsrud, respectfully.

We are slowly led to understand that the unexpected guest is, in fact, a therapist for the missing Mrs. Chamberlayne. He brokers a return of the wife to the family home the next day. Meanwhile various cocktail party guests pop back in to visit Mr. Chamberlayne with various motives and excuses. Key among these guests is Celia Coplestone, Mr. Chamberlaynes mistress played by Lauren English. Another visitor is Mrs. Shuttlewaite, the busybody older rich woman, played by Cynthia Harris. Hundreds of these older interesting archetypes are ensconced in our mind, and the actress struggles to compete with our memories of Dame May Whitney, Angela Lansbury and others. Miss Harris excels later in the show, so it seems the awkwardness of scene one is a stylistic choice of the director.

In the second act, the show’s age results in some odd soliloquies from the therapists about the meaning of self and mental health and morality. These scenes weigh the show down, but not excessively.

This is a show you want to enjoy. The words are beautiful, the sets and costumes (by Laura Jellinek and David Toser) hearken back to a time of elegance. You want to get lost in this show, but ultimately the directorial decisions force an uncomfortable distance between the actors and the audience. A mannered play needn’t be remote; this Cocktail Party is.

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