Cast, director lift Huntington’s ‘Cocktail Hour’

Richard Poe, Maureen Anderman, James Waterston, and Pamela J. Gray in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of AR Gurney's The Cocktail Hour. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Richard Poe, Maureen Anderman, James Waterston, and Pamela J. Gray in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of AR Gurney’s The Cocktail Hour. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

BOSTON — While many theater companies are producing holiday-themed pieces this month, the Huntington Theatre Company has done a bit of cross-programming that allows you to escape the holidays entirely for two hours, if you wish to.

Last season, Maria Aitken directed James Waterston in a lovely revival of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” at the Huntington. It is the type of show that both Aitken and the Huntington do very well.
When there’s a good amount of verbal parrying to be done in close quarters, Aitken is your director. A.R. Gurney‘s gentle, amusing comedy of manners “The Cocktail Hour” isn’t up to the level of Noel Coward in his prime, but it will do in the production now at the BU Theatre through Dec. 15.
Gurney has at several points in his career mined the lives of upscale WASPs in the Northeast. It is 1970s Buffalo, N.Y. and four members of an upper-class family are gathering for a treasured family tradition — the cocktail hour — a time to wash away the cares with the liquid refreshment of your choice while catching up with each other and the news of the day.
Bradley, the patriarch of the family, is a successful businessman and his home and its appointments carry the trappings of that success.
It is almost a cliche to praise a Huntington Theatre Company set yet again, but here goes: Allen Moyer’s living room set is exquisitely detailed, from the great staircase to the grand piano, and even the offstage dining room that comes into play in the second act is done with loving detail.
Richard Poe’s Bradley is full of brusque charm, the kind you would imagine going over well at the country club and in the kind of personal relationships that would be key to his business.
The character of John (James Waterston) — loosely based on Gurney himself — works at a publishing house but his first love is playwriting, and he’s had a couple of modest successes but nothing that would pay the bills.
John doesn’t come up form New York City that often to visit his parents, but here he is — and just in time for the cocktail hour.
John isn’t drinking — just yet — and soon he reveals the reason for his visit, a play he has just completed, and he’s ready to sign a contract for it to be produced.
“This one’s about us, Pop — the family,” he says. “It cuts pretty close to the bone.“
In fact, the name of the play is “The Cocktail Hour.” With that warning shot across the bow, the tension escalates and the cocktail hour becomes something else altogether.
Sister Nina (Pamela J. Gray) enters the fray and also doesn’t much like the idea of John‘s play, and she’s further put off that she’s only a minor character in the play.
Serving as a referee of sorts, Maureen Anderman — who has lent her talents to past Huntington successes such as “Rabbit Hole” and “The Sisters Rosenweig” — here is Ann, a wife and mother trying to go along to get along, concerned for the reputation of her and her husband as well as the dreams and desires of her children, which also includes unseen son Jigger.
Ann will have another drink — actually “just a splash” many, many times — as she deals with career changes and decisions made by her children that will put them in their father’s line of fire.
Money enters the equation when Bradley attempts to “buy off” John’s play with a check and a guarantee that the play won’t be produced while he and his wife are alive.
The ongoing joke, meanwhile, is that the cook is apparently unable to master cooking a roast, extending the cocktail hour, leading to more alcohol consumption
John, in particular, feels that his parents’ devotion to the cocktail hour is a symbol of what was missing in his childhood, with servants catering to his needs and his parents often off in the distance. He questions, both in his play and in person, the disconnect between himself and his father, and struggles to find the answer for it, in either his real life or his play.
There is also tumult going on in the lives of his siblings. Nina is contemplating a career change that would literally see her go to the dogs as an animal trainer. Jigger is about to quit a well-paying job — a job Bradley helped him to get — to move to California and build boats for half the salary.
The head-butting and back-and-forths won’t result in any great revelations or changed lives, and the ending is unsatisfying.
There are no Molotov cocktails in ”The Cocktail Hour,” and the small pleasures in the production are to be found in the execution of the piece by Aitken and the cast, and not the piece itself.
The Huntington Theatre Company production of A.R. Gurney’s “The Cocktail Hour.” Directed by Maria Aitken. Set design by Allen Moyer. Costume design by Candice Donnelly. Lighting design by Paul Palazzo. Sound design by John Gromada. At The BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, through Dec. 15.