.S. Eliot's "The Cocktail Party," at the Burbage, is an arcane amalgam that is part drawing-room comedy, part mystical exegesis and part downright psychobabble.
Nowadays, the psychobabble wears a bit thin.
When the play was first produced in 1950, it was no doubt novel, even mildly revolutionary, to hear characters discuss their innermost emotions with such candor and at such length. Nowadays, when relative strangers plunge into the most grisly personal revelations at the drop of a canape, these characters' endless confessional chatter strikes one as merely self-absorbed and self-indulgent.
A superb performance by Alexander Zale as the mysterious stranger makes this three-hour-plus evening move more quickly--although not quickly enough. Rebecca Bonar is excellent as the vapid busybody who is in actuality super-human and all-wise, as is William Lithgow as a mincing magus with similar powers.
Alley Mills (best known for her role as the mom on the long-running television series "The Wonder Years") is elegant but restrained as the dissatisfied wife. Loren Lester, who plays a philandering middle-aged barrister concerned about his own mortality, is simply too young for the role.
A healthy spirit of iconoclasm could have enlivened this somewhat stuffy production, but Lester, who also directed, is more reverent than revisionist, and seems overawed by the piece's pedigree.
Ultimately, this cocktail party is a still-life, and even the mysticism rippling under the surface cannot enliven it.
* "The Cocktail Party," Burbage Theatre, 2330 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends June 4. $15. (310) 478-0897. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.