The holiday season is a time when many people reconnect with their families, and the preparation for a visit can be an exercise in either joy or dread. Silver Spring Stage has a little something for those who might find family time a bit uneasy. It's "The Cocktail Hour," another of playwright A.R. Gurney's dissections of family life as lived by what he refers to as "the vanishing WASP ruling class."
What makes "The Cocktail Hour" resonant is that it seems to be a thinly fictionalized autobiography, full of self-referential anecdotes and observations. But resonance alone does not guarantee a successful production, and this version, directed by Laurie T. Freed, is a cocktail with no fizz and little kick.
A product himself of an old-line, well-to-do Buffalo family, Gurney presents to the audience an upper-class family in upstate New York, circa 1975. Sparking an assessment of the family's history is a rare visit by the older son, John. Capably but unremarkably played by Daniel Mont, John is an unfulfilled publisher who yearns to be a successful playwright. His new play, which he has brought along with him, is a thinly disguised autobiography showcasing his family's interpersonal dynamics.
John's aging father, Bradley, a formal and conservative man portrayed by Bill Brannigan, naturally doesn't approve of the idea of exposing his family's inner life to the world. He accuses John of "fouling the nest," a major transgression for a repressed and tradition-bound man who clings fiercely to long-established codes of reserve. Time-honored practices, such as dressing for dinner and the mandatory cocktail hour that precedes it, are designed to ensure that all remains calm on the surface regardless of what emotions might be roiling below.
Bradley is the key to the play. But Brannigan doesn't fully exploit the tools Gurney gives him to create a memorable character. Bradley should move with great care and imbue the constant mixing of the family's drinks with the qualities of ritual, as if steady action and familiar routines will soothe any problems. But while Brannigan does well with the dialogue, he doesn't physically embody the presence the character requires, depriving the low-key drama of much of its impact, particularly in Bradley's interaction with his wife, the matronly Ann, played by Carol Leahy.
Ann is neither as formal nor as reserved as her husband, which might be due to her persistent desire for "just a splash" of her preferred cocktail. Leahy and Brannigan never fully achieve a comfort level together onstage that allows their dialogue to seem as if their characters have spent five decades together.
Completing the family portrait is Leta Hall, who portrays John's younger sister, Nina. Like her brother, Nina arrives at the family home without her spouse, which helps reestablish the parent-child dynamics of the family relationships. The family history that is exhumed and examined is neither very interesting nor important, as Gurney's focus is on character studies and how each member of the family is intertwined with the others.
The director has seen to it that the conversations flow naturally, avoiding the rat-a-tat pacing that is easy to fall into with Gurney's back-and-forth repartee. Scenes between brother and sister worked well, as Mont and Hall effectively went beyond the dialogue to create an atmosphere of affectionate sibling rivalry. (Brendan Murray is replacing Mont this weekend for the remaining performances.) That sense of relationship seemingly emanates from the attitude, body language and tone, rather than words; unfortunately the director did not see to it that the entire play is performed in this manner.
"The Cocktail Hour," performed by Silver Spring Stage, concludes this weekend at the Woodmoor Shopping Center, 10145 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Showtime Friday and Saturday is 8 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. For reservations, call 301-593-6036. For information and reservations, visit www.ssstage.org.