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Huntington Stages A. R. Gurney Comedy of Manners

Aitken directs autobiographical The Cocktail Hour

The Cocktail Hour by A. R. Gurney, Huntington Theatre Company

Richard Poe (clockwise from left), James Waterston, Pamela J. Gray, and Maureen Anderman portray a New England WASP family in the Huntington Theatre Company production of A. R. Gurney’s comedy of manners The Cocktail Hour. Photos by T. Charles Erickson

The bite, poignancy, and universal themes of The Cocktail Hour resonate as powerfully today as when it premiered Off-Broadway 25 years ago. The A. R. Gurney comedy of manners is set deep in a gilded New England WASP culture that on its surface seems even more rarified than it did then.

“It’s a powerful story,” says James Waterston (Private Lives, Ah Wilderness!), who has returned to the BU Theatre for the Huntington Theatre Company production of the play, after starring in last year’s staging of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. “What makes The Cocktail Hour great is that anyone can relate to it.” Directed by Maria Aitken, the play runs through December 15.

Set in an elegant home during the ritualistic predinner cocktail hour, the play follows, with scathing wit and pathos, the collapse of mannerly pretense as adult son John (Waterston) reveals that he has written a play about his family. John’s play is also called The Cocktail Hour, and as he seeks his parents’ permission to proceed with it, their fears of exposure, in all their messy humanity, drive them to descend into often hilarious recriminations and repartee. When the play first opened in 1988, critic Frank Rich wrote in a New York Times review that Gurney “has new and witty observations to make about a nearly extinct patrician class that regards psychiatry as an affront to good manners, underpaid hired help as a birthright, and the selling of blue-chip stocks as a first step toward Marxism.”

“It’s a really beautifully drawn portrait of this world, this strata, and this time, but within that portrait, you get something that goes way beyond it,” says Waterston, who has acted in several Gurney plays and finds this the playwright’s darkest.

Pamela J. Gray and James Waterston, Huntington Theatre Company, The Cocktail Hour by A. R. Gurney

Gray and Waterston play a sister and brother in The Cocktail Hour.

Although Aitken’s direction goes “for the truth,” not laughs, the play is very funny, says Waterston, the son of veteran stage, screen, and television actor Sam Waterston, best known as Law & Order’s Jack McCoy. “We’re going for the reality; that’s our aim, and the hope is that the humor comes out of that. It’s stronger that way, and funnier that way.”

The four-character play, which Gurney called “the most personal thing” he’d written up until that time, was so autobiographical that he promised his family it wouldn’t be produced in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., until after his parents died, although, he later said, he wasn’t “terribly tough” on them. In fact, Waterston says, the play is “a love letter to Gurney’s family, with all its warts and boils.” It includes a small detail bound to delight the audience—the character John has a play running at the BU Theatre.

Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois has been thinking about staging a revival of The Cocktail Hour for years. “It’s the American comedy of manners,” he says. What clinched the decision was the availability of Aitken, who drew praise for Private Lives, the previous year’s staging of the Harold Pinter classic Betrayal, and 2011’s Educating Rita.

James Waterston and Richard Poe, Huntington Theatre Company, The Cocktail Hour by A. R. Gurney

Waterston is a playwright whose work might expose family secrets.

Aitken says that the BU Theatre is her favorite stage in America. “The idea of a year going by without working at the Huntington was so stressful that I sought solace in the occasional martini while working elsewhere,” she says. Her credits include the Olivier- and Tony-winning production of Alfred Hitchock’s The 39 Steps, which she directed at the Huntington prior to a run on Broadway.

The Cocktail Hour also features Richard Poe (The Taming of the Shrew) as John’s father, Bradley, Maureen Anderman (Becky Shaw and Third) as his mother, Ann, and Pamela J. Gray (Present Laughter and Butley) as his sister, Nina.

The Huntington Theatre Company production of The Cocktail Hour runs at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, through December 15, 2013. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office. Patrons 35 and younger may purchase $25 tickets (ID required) for any production, and there is a $5 discount for seniors. Military personnel can purchase tickets for $15, and student rush tickets are also available for $15. Members of the BU community get $10 off (ID required) and are also eligible for a special subscribers discount rate. Follow the Huntington Theatre Company on Twitter at @huntington.

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