Toasts of the Town
In vino, veritas" goes the Latin saying: "In wine, truth" -- the idea being that what may be suppressed in everyday life will come to light after a few drinks. The ancient Athenians went so far as to legalize this belief for a time: In critical votes, citizens voted twice, once while sober and once while not. When the outcome differed, the city knew there was more talking to be done before any decision should be made. That's pretty much the operating principle underlying two plays currently on the South Florida boards. Though widely different settings and style, both The Weir at the New Theatre in Coral Gables and The Cocktail Hour at the Caldwell in Boca Raton center on drink and truth-telling -- with a whole lot of both.
The Weir was written by the up-and-coming young playwright Conor McPherson, who has enjoyed critical acclaim in London and New York for this evocative, mysterious play. It takes place in an Irish country pub on a cold, windy night. Like the pub itself, the story seems suspended in time, as the bartender, Brendan, begins to sweep out the room. With his long hair and rough clothes, Brendan could be the barkeep in one of many centuries; it takes a while before it's clear that this is a modern story.
When a pair of local men, Jack and Jim, sit before the peat-burning fire to share quips and a considerable volume of malt beverages, their conversation seems ageless. It turns out a fourth friend, the well-to-do businessman Finbar, is expected to show up with a young woman from Dublin, Valerie, in tow. Since Finbar is married, the men wonder at his sudden interest in Valerie and what it's all leading to. When Finbar and Valerie do arrive, the awkward situation is initially alleviated by the telling of local ghost tales to acquaint her with the legends of the area. But each old tale seems darker and more eerie than the next; the mood grows increasingly somber. As the whiskey flows and inhibitions wane, some very personal, very modern ghost stories emerge.
McPherson has an excellent ear for the rhythms and undercurrents of his characters' language, but those expecting strong narrative focus or drive may come away somewhat disappointed. In lesser hands, this simple, word-driven play might ordinarily lead to little in the way of entertainment. This production, fortunately, is blessed with several assets -- not the least of which is the intimate theater space itself.
Most importantly, Rafael de Acha has assembled a superior acting ensemble, which he directs with his usual subtle, delicate style. Each performance -- Matthew Wright's loquacious Jack, David Kwiat's ever-thirsty Jim, Wayne E. Robinson Jr.'s expansive but edgy Finbar, David Mann's quiet Brendan, and Lisa Morgan's haunted Valerie -- all are portrayed with admirable simplicity and honesty. The stories these characters tell, the memories they recall, are so evocative that the play develops a second layer of reality, creating characters and situations of the imagination.
As has been the case all season, de Acha's production team continues to deliver first-rate support. The play's setting is vivid enough to be considered a character in its own right. Michelle Cumming's simple but beautifully conceived set design carefully mirrors the dynamics of this script. The general feel is naturalistic -- darkened rafters, bare wood floors, and the requisite pub signs. But the angles of this pub are in forced perspective, and the painting-like photos on walls don't quite hang on them; they float suspended in the air. The set plays with the audience's sense of space -- as the play itself plays with the sense of time. In this Ireland, the past and present are merged. The ghosts, the photographs, the memories don't go away; they just keep on haunting us, no matter what the time or weather.
Meanwhile, in Boca Raton, the Caldwell serves up The Cocktail Hour, A.R. Gurney's bittersweet comedy about one upscale, WASPy family in Buffalo, New York. The older son of the family, John, a middle-aged playwright, returns from New York City to his parents' home to join in the cocktail hour, the nightly family ritual that his father, Bradley, relishes as the epitome of civilized life. He holds nothing dearer than drinks with wife Ann, conversation, and family togetherness.
But John reveals that he's not there to drink; he's there to ask permission to depict the family in a play he wrote and plans to get produced, one that happens to be called The Cocktail Hour. Bradley, who mistrusts John's intentions, is indignant that John would plan to display his family on the stage for strangers to laugh at. John tries to defend his work as a bittersweet portrait of one upscale WASPy family in Buffalo, but Bradley won't hear of it and tries to bribe John to shelve the project. As the drinks begin to flow, the contest between father and son deepens as John strives to find out why his father has always kept him at arm's length. When the booze leads the rest of the family to reveal its long-suppressed conflicts as well, the old-fashioned family values Bradley has sought to maintain start to crumble.
Michael Hall has expressed an affinity for Gurney's work, and it certainly shows here. As per usual, Hall's direction is deft and clear, though perhaps too genteel: Some moments of potentially messy emotions get glossed over, and the resolution seems altogether too pat. Gurney's play is essentially a traditional drama, in a long line of father/son confrontations that echo O'Neill, Miller, Sam Shepard, and many other American playwrights. But to this, Gurney adds a post-modern twist. The play John wrote appears to be identical to the larger play we are watching, and since Gurney's own life tends to replicate the central situation, there's a triple-entendre to all of this that adds some zest to the rather shopworn story structure.
Written in the late '80s, the play holds up well overall. Both of his central characters show considerable depth: John is the hero, and Bradley is his antagonist, but neither is purely good nor evil. Bradley's personal anguish is genuinely affecting, his self-importance forgivable. John's career aspirations, like those of his siblings, often come off like narcissistic navel-gazing.
The cast is in fine form, especially Steve Pudenz as family patriarch Bradley. With an upper-class drawl and fussy mannerisms, Pudenz absolutely nails his character. Bob Rogerson, who is a very busy leading man these days, is solid as John, the frustrated, put-upon son who never gets a break from his father. Jayne Heller as the conflicted Ann and Jacqueline Knapp as her equally conflicted daughter Nina are also quite fine.
It may just be coincidence that these two productions, as well as several others now running, offer superior acting, directing, and production values. But it may well just as likely augur something more significant: Superior theatrics are fast becoming the rule in this region, not the exception. Sure, fundamental problems remain (which will be the subject of a future article), but when I compare this area to others I know well -- Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit, Minneapolis -- South Florida holds up very well indeed. And we can all drink to that.
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