“The Cocktail Hour,” the Old Globe Theatre world premiere that won the San Diego Critics Circle award Sunday for Best New Play, seems well on its way to becoming a solid Off-Broadway hit at the Promenade Theatre, where it opened last Thursday.
Critical raves poured in as swiftly as the martinis do in the A. R. Gurney play. William A. Henry III of Time magazine called it “a splendid, old-fashioned family confrontation. . . Gurney’s most emotionally satisfying play.” Howard Kissel of the New York Daily News wrote “enchanting . . . Gurney at his best. . . . I laugh through tears.” Clive Barnes of the New York Post called it “deliciously funny . . . silkily smoothly staged by Jack O’Brien, the Old Globe’s artistic director.”
Frank Rich gave it high marks for “new and witty observations” and low for “canned familial insights” in his mixed New York Times review Oct. 20, but he did give it a near-rave the next morning on the New York Times radio station, WQXR, saying, “A. R. Gurney is as funny as ever--at the top of his form.” Like Rich, Linda Winer of Newsday delighted in the humor of the play and deplored the shallowness of its depths.
In its single pan to date, John Simon of New York magazine slammed three playwrights at once while conceding that the audience loved the play, even if he did not: “Can most charitably be described as insipid. . . . The play is heir to O’Neill’s wit and Neil Simon’s depth.”
Critical acclaim has translated quickly into a box-office bonanza at the 399-seat theater, where the show has an advance sale of $116,000, and about $27,000 coming in daily. With tickets going for $30 on weekends and $28 on weekdays, it takes almost $12,000 to fill all seats each night. There are no plans to move the show to Broadway, where the financial pressures grow with the increased size of the theaters, Gurney said.
“The Cocktail Hour” joins the Tony-award winning “Into the Woods” and the still-struggling “Suds” as the third Old Globe production to play concurrently in New York. Neil Simon’s “Rumors” will join the San Diego contingent when it opens at the Broadhurst Theatre on Nov. 17.
When “The Cocktail Hour” starts to show a profit, the Old Globe stands to share in the proceeds, as it does with “Into the Woods,” according to Thomas Hall, managing director of the Old Globe and associate producer of the play.
In New York, a week before opening night, Gurney was nervous about the reviews. His play, “Another Antigone,” which won the San Diego Critics Circle award for Best New Play in 1987, was panned by New York critics and quickly closed. The year before, his “Sweet Sue,” starring Mary Tyler Moore and Lynn Redgrave, closed six months after a painful thumbs-down from The New York Times’ second-string critic, Mel Gussow.
The award from the San Diego Critics Circle notwithstanding, most individual notices from San Diego and Los Angeles critics were mixed to negative when “The Cocktail Hour” opened at the Old Globe on June 2.
“When you fail, the scrutiny is so intense and the failure is so public,” Gurney said over lunch at Joe Allen’s, a popular New York eatery with Broadway posters covering the red-brick walls. “Everyone reads the New York Times, and you feel everyone is looking at you and saying, ‘You jerk.’ And now that the New York Times has a national and international edition, you feel you failed all over the world.”
Gurney’s sensitivity to public disapproval springs partly from the harsh economic lessons he has learned from negative reviews by the New York Times in the past, he said this week on the phone from New York.
“I’ve always had a bad time from the New York Times. Always. There doesn’t seem to be any way around that one,” he said. But it also reflects a deep distrust of public exposure that is woven into “The Cocktail Hour” itself.
“The Cocktail Hour,” which Gurney describes as semi-autobiographical, tells the story of a playwright who brings his semi-autobiographical play home to his white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant family for approval before getting it produced.
Everyone in this fiercely private family is against the public exposure the production would bring to WASPS in general and themselves in particular. The funny, etched-in-acid banter is delivered in an elaborate M.C. Escher-like rendering of a play within a play in which the sister, insulted after reading in the script that the sister walks off huffily, walks off huffily.
“It was a very emotional experience writing this play and seeing it produced,” Gurney said. “It’s close to home.” Indeed, there has been a bit of life imitating art imitating life.
Thinking his mother might find the play too painful, Gurney told her not to attend, and she agreed to stay away. Now, after the play’s success, People magazine has begun interviewing Gurney and his family. He warned his mother that the magazine would be calling her, and she told them that would be fine because she would be out of town.
Will they be able to track her down?
“They probably won’t,” Gurney said and laughed.
He leaves for Europe Saturday to see the French version of his play, “A Woman Who Doesn’t Cause Trouble,” which is being staged in Paris. He next goes to Vienna for the English version of his “The Dining Room.”
Gurney attributes the success of “The Cocktail Hour” to Jack O’Brien, the Old Globe’s artistic director, who received raves for his direction of the show in both San Diego and New York.
He also praised its five producers, Hall, the legendary Roger L. Stevens, whose many Broadway credits range from “West Side Story” to “Annie,” who pledged to produce the play on the basis of the script alone, and the three-part team of Steven Baruch, Thomas Viertel and Richard Frankel, who acquired a dynamite Off-Broadway reputation with recent productions of Terrence McNally’s “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” and Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” which are being adapted for movies after upcoming runs in Los Angeles.
And then, of course, there’s the play itself, which Gurney believes is being lauded, not only on its merits, but as a newly realized appreciation of the work he has done up to now.
“I’m very fond of this play, but I’ve written a lot of plays over the years, and this play is a summing up of all those plays,” he said. “I think people may be paying attention because of the body of work. I’d like to think that’s the case.”