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A CurtainUp Review
The Cocktail Party
By Elyse Sommer
Given TACT's excellent track record for resurrecting neglected plays, you're safe in assuming that, whether or not you agree with the critic who hailed it as "a masterpiece of contemporary theater," that this company will give it a handsome staging and that its resident and guest artists will give intelligent, invigorating performances. And that's exactly the case. Director Scott Alan Evans has elicited lively performances from the cast of eight, all of whom are handsomely outfitted by David Tosier and provided with an unfussy but suitable set by Andrew Lierberman and Laura Jellinek.
To a lot of theater goers T. S. Eliot's connection to the stage is as the author of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats which inspired the long running musical Cats. Yet The Cocktail Party was the renowned poet's very own Broadway hit. Its 409 performance Tony Award winning (for best play) run at the Henry Miller Theater (1/21/1950 to 1/13/51) may not rival Cats, but it was a very healthy run for that time — especially so for a play written in verse and with lots of puzzling subtext buried within its drawing room comedy format.
The script does make good on Eliot's commitment to verse playwriting that would keep the verse unobtrusive to the ear and used mainly as means to prepare the audience for moments of high intensity. Thus, you'll find that the smart banter that's as much the hallmark of any good drawing comedy as its somewhat mannered veneer, is no more difficult to follow than prose. That's not to say that you won't be scratching your head when that dialogue veers from Wildean wit to talk weighed down with Anglo-Catholic symbolism, or that you'll find the psychological views expressed almost laughably dated.
Undaunted by The Cocktail Party's deeper themes, New Yorkers filled the theater throughout its premiere season. Does that mean that this was a time when people were more intellectually up to puzzling out the play's link to Greek myth (Eliot's inspirational forbear was Euripides' Alcestis), high church mysticism, not to mention sin, suffering and redemption? Not really. But the critics' endorsements (New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson was a lone naysayer) and Eliot's literary reputation gave the work the same sort must-see snob cachet associated most recently with marathons like Tom Stoppard's history and philosophy stuffed Coast of Utopia.
It didn't hurt of course that the amusing cocktail party chitchat, the colorful upper crust characters and the party hosts' marital problems made eavesdropping on Eliot's Londoners fun and entertaining. The confusion relating to some of the high fallutin', God-like pronouncements by a mysterious guest — both with his name and identity a mystery and when we know more about him — added to the The Coctail Party's aura of being important enough to make it a must for being au courant at any social gathering.
The plot situation is this: The action spans two years and two cocktail parties in the London flat of Lavinia Chamberlayne (Erika Rolfsrud) and her barrister husband Edward (Jack Koenig). Lavinia is actually not at hand for the first party and Edward appears to be quite distracted. Small wonder, for it turns out that she's not nursing an aunt as he tells the guests but has left with no intention to return. If I'm not to be a spoiler, I need to stop here and limit myself to introducing you to the other characterss.
The most vocal guest is Julia Shuttlewaithe who, as played by Cynthia Harris, is hilarious, though she will prove to be far less addle-brained than she appears to be. The most beautiful and ultimatel, the most complex is Celia Coplestone (Lauren English). She is a major presence in the lives of Lavinia and Edward as well as Peter Quilpe (Jeremy Beck), a young Hollywood mogul in the making. Also present is Alexander MacColgie Gibbs (Mark Alhadeff), who happens to be In London for both parties though he's usually in far flung places as part of a U.N. type organization that observes and reports on world trouble spots. Alhadeff, like Cynthia Harris, adds comic relief. He too is deeper than he seems during his droll post-party visit to the Chamberlayne flat in order to cook a meal for Edward. (Actually, the first party has everyone departing and returning for an unanticipated and not especially welcome surprise one-on-one with Edward).
Of course not to be overlooked is the Unidentified Guest, played initially by Alec Guiness, later by Rex Harrison; and in a 44-performance 1968 revival by Brian Bedford. Simon Jones follows these distinguished predecessors with cool, calm and collected authority. When first on stage he says little but seems quite comfortable in this tight, gossipy little circle though no one, including the host, knows just why he's there and who he is. Yet, it is exactly because he's a stranger that Edward feels he can confide in him about Lavinia's sudden and totally unexpected desertion.
From the moment Jones takes center stage, the play shifts from drawing room comedy into a psychological-philosophical mystery. Jones's God-like character leads Edward, Lavinia and Celia into a new direction from the illusion all three have all lived in. The last act jumps forward two years to reveal where all this has led the Chamberlaynes and Celia. Considering the vastly different paths taken and Eliot's take on self-deception and redemption, the ending could be viewed as uplifting or depressing — or a bit of both.
While even some of the talkier interchanges are not impossibly hard to follow. But, if you feel stumped by some of these clunkier allusions to crucifixion and redemption, think of this: When Rex Harrison took over the role from Alec Guiness he confessed to director Martin Browne that he could not grasp what some of Eliot's lines meant. Browne told him not to worry because the audience would not understand them either. Apparently Harrison took the director's advice and did just fine even with the lines he didn't understand. And if you leave your worries about getting it all at the door, you'll find the TACT production well done enough to make visiting or revisiting The Cocktail Party well worth your time.