If those people up on stage are emotionally constipated WASPs, chances are the playwright who put them there is A.R. Gurney. And so it is with the South Park Theatre's production of The Cocktail Hour, one of Gurney's most Caucasian and confessional plays.
An uptight playwright returns home to visit his elderly parents, and during the pre-dinner cocktail hour announces that his next play is about them.
In today's celebrity-crazed culture this might sound unbelievable but ... once upon a time, especially in the "old money" world Gurney writes about, to have one's name in the paper was the most humiliating thing that could ever happen. So the parents in The Cocktail Hour couldn't be more upset -- especially since they suspect the son's motives.
And I'm with them. Even if the play is never produced, just announcing its existence is a fairly cruel act, given that everyone (including his sister) is in a heightened state of anxiety.
Which, not coincidentally, is a pretty good place to start your play. For much of The Cocktail Hour, Gurney rides a wave of nervous energy and laughter: His characters may be screwed up, but they are always exceedingly intelligent and excessively funny about it.
Well, almost always. The maddening thing about Cocktail Hour is that it's a very good play with a big, fat hole in it. "Daddy-why-don't-you-love-me?" plays (which Cocktail Hour is) have a revelatory second-act scene in which Papa Bear and Baby Bear hurl accusations, reveal ancient secret family truths, and then go in for a bunch of male bonding. But Cocktail Hour doesn't have that scene.
Perhaps Gurney didn't want to wash the Gurney dirty laundry in public. That's his choice, certainly, but I'm not sure why he tried to turn that into drama. Interestingly, Cocktail Hour even includes a joke about how the son's play doesn't have that scene, but it only highlights the problem without solving it.
Nevertheless, and thanks to this very sturdy South Park Theatre production, directed by F.J. Hartland with pace and polish, Cocktail Hour is a very enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. Jack Goodstein and Joyce Miller are, for all the world, a finely honed married pair, each holding up the other. Shawn A. Smith, as the son, needs to work on projecting, both in terms of volume and emotion. Camille MacRae is wonderfully funny and fully engaged as the sister.
The Cocktail Hour continues through Aug. 29. South Park Theatre, Corrigan Drive and Brownsville Road, South Park. 412-831-8552 or www.southparktheatre.com