Like any WASP worth his salt, this A.R. Gurney play can be dressed up or down and still look crisp. The self-referential script, centering on the reaction of the playwright's family to his autobiographic plays, reads gently and poignantly. But director Robert O'Reilly also emphasizes the humor in the script, making the work nearly vaudevillian—or as close to seltzer-in-the-pants humor as WASPs can get. Gurney is known for his conceits (Love Letters) and for his shamelessly autobiographic plots and characters (Scenes From American Life), and he'll get no complaints here. This beautifully shaped play is taken on a smooth ride, the foreshadowing kept subtle by the direction, the merely conversational lines turned into repartee.
Detracting from this production, however, is the odd casting choice for the playwright's father. Considering the size of the talent pool from which to draw a decent actor in the 60- to 70-year-old range, that this production uses a much younger man provides a puzzle that distracts for much of the play. It also leaves actor Chip Heller stooping, shuffling, and clearing phlegm from his throat, and more's the pity because Heller has a rich voice and keen timing, he plays obliviousness with purpose, and his character's growth is gentle and believable.
David Carey Foster portrays the playwright, John, as a man with this, and other, stories simmering under his surface. He shows fine attention to detail, his fingertips lingering on the hot-potato script John has brought home to show the family, then similarly lingering on the bottle of Cutty Sark that John won't indulge in—yet. As the playwright's mother, Sandra Kinder makes a wry WASP, her vocal cadences dancing a jig, smirking proudly when she admits it is usually the wife who strays in the plays she has seen, accenting her remarks with a lacy white hankie that never leaves her left hand. While adorably comedic where appropriate, Kinder is also more than convincing when her character admits to John he was lost in the shuffle of her life—she's appropriately dismissive because she is embarrassed by her neglect of him. Ruth Crawford brings humor to John's sister, the self-styled neglected child. Crawford brings a laugh to lines not particularly funny in the script; but when she is not called upon to clown, her lines sound improvised, and at moments the sibling relationship seems palpable.
Under David Flad's genteel lighting, the actors spend a cozy evening in costumer Laura Dwan's tweeds, cashmeres, and tasseled loafers. And, as nearly a character all its own that attracts the interest of the keen-eyed (and hungry), the long-anticipated cheese platter finally arrives in the form of a small plate bearing a few tiny cubes of hard cheese.
"The Cocktail Hour," presented by the Colony Theatre Company at Burbank Center Stage, 555 N. Third St., Burbank. Tues.-Wed. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Feb. 27-Apr. 7. $10. (818) 558-7000.