review: the cocktail party

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The Cocktail Party

By T.S. Eliot
Directed by Jennifer Shook
Caffeine Theatre Production
Athenaeum Theatre Studio One
2936 N. Southport Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60657

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 2, 2006

This PARTY Offers Poetic Philosophical Musings and Grand Theatre

  • “It’s such a nice party I hate to leave it; It’s such a nice party I hate to repeat it”
  • “I know that what I wanted was the luxury of an intimate disclosure to a stranger”
  • “She has simply faded into another picture .. like some film effect.”
  • “If there is a trap we are all in the trap.  We have set it for ourselves.”
  • “I have ceased to believe in my own personality”
  • “I am obsessed with the thought of my own insignificance.”
  • “Go in peace my daughter and work out your salvation with diligence”

When THE COCKTAIL PARTY opened on Broadway in January 1950, the playwright and the mostly English cast thought they would have a short adventure and return home quickly.  What happened instead was that the production inspired responses ranging from confusion to kudos; when published, the play in blank verse became a best seller; and the play ran for a year.

What are we to make of this piece today?  In the version now to be seen and savored at the Athenaeum Studio 1 produced by Caffeine Theatre, you can expect a philosophical pastiche, a chuckle and a tear or two, some smiles in recognition.  In short, you can expect a delightful night in the theatre.

The caveats can be dispensed with quickly.  This is a company of modest means presenting this stylish period piece.  (Even in its original incarnation I expect this would have been described as a period piece of sorts, or a piece very specifically of a particular class – the British upper —  and a particular place and time – London in the late 1940s.)  So a simple modernistic and suggestive set and lighting design by Kevin Hagan (frames for doorways, a single set serving multiple pieces), and presentable but not stunningly expensive clothes designed by Joshua D. Allard, make do, and make do quite well.   Sound design by Andrew Hansen nicely evokes the time period and a Noel Coward world.

Where this piece shines is in the heart of the enterprise: the words and the world of the characters who speak them.   This play in two acts is a comedy of manners and a drama in human scale about a married couple Edward Chamberlayne (Paul S. Holmquist) and Lavinia Chamberlayne (Fannie Hungerford), who have hit a rough patch in their five-year old marriage.  The play opens with a cocktail party in full swing but several confusing elements: the hostess is not present, one guest (Jason Beck) appears not to have been invited or even openly known to any of the other guests.   The guests gradually leave for other locales, in some confusion over the state of the union of Edward and Lavinia.  Julie (Marssie Mencotti) and Alexander (Scott Olson) return repeatedly to check in on Edward with a range of ruses: cooking for him, looking for misplaced eyeglasses or umbrella.  Celia (Kelli Nonnemacher) returns to tend to Edward in a more personal way; it appears that the two have been having an affair for some time.  In subsequent scenes the unidentified guest is revealed to be a psychiatrist who has been seeing the absent wife and is soon to begin seeing several other characters.  The Doctor and Julia and Alex are both human and spectral and have conversations about steering their human acquaintances along their ways to self-fulfillment.  And characters choose a range of directions.  The play ends as it begins –with a cocktail party several years later.

We wonder early on: is this a mystery to be solved (Where is Lavinia? Will Edward make sense of the party that he didn’t plan and the guest he doesn’t know and didn’t invite?) or simply a social rift to mend?  We soon realize that the play is so much more than this simple through line.  The play presents themes of lies, honesty, tricks, concealment, and finally self-discovery and acceptance.  This is an exploration in conversational prose poetry of individual will, individual responsibility, guilt, and judgment.

This piece faces a number of challenges in today’s literal minded theatrical environment.   We see the characters in what looks to be a period piece, so want to make out of them characters that are Noel Coward world weary but charming and spunky nonetheless.  The characters are all that, but they are something else too.  (One wonders if transplanting the characters to contemporary upper class worlds in London or New York or elsewhere would also play.  All that is necessary is a range of characters with too much money and too much leisure, and you have a start.)  This piece is also challenged by the context provided to contemporary American audiences by television shows such as “Touched by An Angel”, “Highway to Heaven”, and other shows in which otherworldly characters appear with the explicit purpose of steering the characters toward some sort of divinely ordained end.  Eliot’s piece is more complex and ecumenical than that: providing “guide” characters who draw from a range of spiritual traditions in what they say and do.  Director Jennifer Shook and her production staff including dramaturg Daniel Smith have crafted a production that is much more than a television dramedy with supernatural effects.  This is an intelligent and emotional night in the theatre.

I wish that every audience member could participate in a version of the fabulous discussion session that was held after the April 2, 2006 performance with the Director, dramaturg, most of the cast, and an Eliot expert (David Thompson) from the University of Chicago.  While this special post experience processing cannot be provided for all audience members in precisely this form, the playbill notes will go a long way to getting such conversations started.  Get ready for them.

Recommended

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 2, 2006)

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