Sunday, November 6, 2011



Sheila-current3By Sheila Abrams

“If he killed the fatted calf, you would complain about the cholesterol,” says Ann Stevens to her son, John, about his relationship with his father. The uncomfortable relationship between father and son is only part of the dysfunctional family dynamic that is at the heart of A.R. Gurney’s witty comedy of manners, The Cocktail Hour, running through Nov. 20 at the Black River Playhouse in Chester.

The play, a production of the Chester Theatre Group, has been adroitly directed by Annandale resident Cindy Alexander.

The Cocktail Hour is also the name of a play within the play that sets things in motion. John, a playwright who has already had some commercial success, has come home to Buffalo, N.Y., to ask his parents’ permission to produce his new opus. It is, he explains, about them.

His parents are, of course, understandably aghast. Are their foibles and family secrets, such as they may be, to be paraded in front of just anyone who buys a ticket? While offstage, dinner seems to be indefinitely delayed, the alcohol flows, along with both revelations and recriminations.

Ann and Bradley are predictably upset with the turn society has taken as they perceive it. They see their culture, their values, their very way of life being judged and found wanting. In the theater, people shout and each other and take their clothes off!

When daughter Nina arrives, further sibling conflict emerges, some of which is confusing and seems to make little sense. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of family interactions in real life are confusing and make little sense. Gurney, who seems to have based the play on his own family, really delivers a slice of life.

Penny Hoadley Michael Foley CTGcThis slice of life, however, is some improvement on the real thing. The Stevens family is funny, intentionally or not. The dialogue is witty and clever. A passage where Ann and Bradley show how their 50-year relationship has rendered them able to finish one another’s sentences is delicious, when performed by two of the brightest stars in the CTG firmament: the wonderful Michael Foley (right) and the eternally gorgeous Penny Hoadley (left). It’s as if Gurney created the roles with them in mind.

Standing in for Gurney himself, Stephen Catron gives John just the right touch of irony. He is a successful playwright. One of his earlier plays starred Swoosie Kurtz, an actress with whom Bradley is somewhat smitten. Nevertheless, his parents seem to take his playwriting as some sort of hobby. Not a real career. Bradley demands to know how much John stands to earn from The Cocktail Hour, and offers him a check for $20,000 not to produce it.

As Nina, Donne Petito is operating for the most part in an emotionally over-the-top mode. The oldest of the Stevens children and the only girl, she carries with her a lot of grievances, not the least of which is the sense of obligation to her parents. Her life’s passion, dogs, and particularly Seeing Eye dogs, seems appropriate for someone with her emotional affect.

By the way, being a Morris County resident, I am astonished that nobody ever told Gurney that “Seeing Eye dog” is not a generic term for “trained service dog.” He has Nina wanting to go to Cleveland to work with Seeing Eye dogs, rather a long commute to Morristown, where she would actually have to go. Just a little Garden State nitpicking, but we should get credit where it’s due.

We also ought to mention the extremely handsome set which Stephen Catron designed. It’s always impressive to see how CTG’s scenic artists use their limited space. In this case, three of the four corners of the performing space are used to superb purpose, one of them especially forming an entry way to the house. The Stevens’ classy living room (drawing room?) is spot on.

This is a stimulating evening. Gurney set the play in 1975, but Ann and Bradley, or the people they represent, are still with us. If they were unhappy about the people yelling at each other and taking their clothes off, what would they say about the Kardashians and Jersey Shore?

For information and reservations, call CTG at 908.879.7304 or visit