The Cocktail Hour


We live in an age of oversharing, as if our every whim must be declared on social media. In politics, partisanship prevents us from reaching compromise; we go to Target instead of Wal-Mart; Facebook prompts us to say where we work and whom our romantic partners are. We “like” altogether too many things—the algorithmic positivity replaces our authentic selves with artificial, self-righteous declarations.

Peter Thomson (Bradley) and Rod Brogan (John) in the Guthrie Theater's production of The Cocktail Hour, by A.R. Gurney. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Peter Thomson (Bradley) and Rod Brogan (John) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of The Cocktail Hour, by A.R. Gurney. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Playwright A. R. Gurney would seem to be far above this fray. Born in 1930 in upstate New York, where this family’s story is set in the 1970s, he writes about how the values of the past run into conflict with the present. But in a play set well before the era of Facebook and Google, these critics discovered why our age of social media declarations so annoys: it’s not the medium or the times, but the act of self-righteous declaration itself.

The Cocktail Hour is a very “meta” comedy. Rod Brogan (as John) portrays a playwright who rails against his critics but yearns to understand why his parents have always been so distant—his character seeks to declare his “status,” as it were.

The conflict is John’s new play soon to be performed in New York City. The play’s subject is John’s hypocrite father, Bradley (Peter Thomson): a blustering WASP who married into money and treats his firstborn son as a stranger. Bradley is far too proud merely to reflect on himself—he is another character who armors himself with artificial declarations. The play also makes his mother, Ann (Kandis Chappell), and sister, Nina (Charity Jones), reflect on their quashed needs and wants.

Slow to start, the first portion feels repetitive in its forced comedy, though moments of audience laughter positively shift the tone. The narrative begins to pick up just before intermission, and the second half certainly provides more compelling pacing and conflict.

The “meta” element is where the The Cocktail Hour falters. It’s a play about a playwright who can’t countenance his critics, and characters who yearn to discover the meaning of their histories. The characters joke about theatre audiences and John’s inability to create plot—both comments on the play in front of us and the play-within-a-play. Yet “meta” gets over-done.

Indeed, in our lives as well as in the fictional narratives we consume, shouldn’t we prefer to be people who do things instead of be things? Navel-gazing is no good whatever the epoch; the act of self-definition turns into labeling, and the person seeking to label herself sees merely the labels in others. We would all do better to “tend our gardens,” as Voltaire tells us, and get on with the thing. This comedy is about rich people sitting around and drinking while the servants prepare dinner, congratulating themselves on their affiliations. Oddly enough The Cocktail Hour becomes the thing which it seeks to critique, which certainly provides for an engaging after-theater discussion.

The Cocktail Hour by A. R. Gurney, runs now until January 4, 2014 at the Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55415. Tickets $40-71, available by phone at 612-377-2224 or online at

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