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24 Mar 2018

Not Quite Ready for Drinks: Due to an Illness, Coyote StageWorks' 'The Cocktail Hour' Opened Before It Should Have

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Jeffrey Jones, Chuck Yates, Lee Bryant and Yo Younger in Coyote StageWorks’ The Cocktail Hour. Jeffrey Jones, Chuck Yates, Lee Bryant and Yo Younger in Coyote StageWorks’ The Cocktail Hour. David A. Lee

Spring has sprung, and here’s to yet another sneezy season of searching for allergy relief. Ker-choo! But to take our minds off our misery, Coyote StageWorks’ The Cocktail Hour has opened at the lovely Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum.

Now, as for what happened on opening night …

Before the curtain parted, the director David Youse appeared and frankly explained to the audience that “one of the cast” had fallen ill a couple of weeks ago, and might have to carry a script to help him get through the show. When the play began, it became obvious that said actor was Jeffrey Jones, whom you will remember as the wonderfully dumb emperor in the overwhelming movie Amadeus. He was forced to rely on his script through almost all of the show—and to add to the problem, he had to don reading glasses to read its words. It’s a shame, as this threw off everyone’s timing, but he has to be saluted for being game enough to go through with opening night.

I’m sure that every alternative had been investigated by those in charge—alternative show dates, cancelling the whole play, finding some quick study to replace him—but the decision was made to go on with the performance, in the celebrated tradition of theater. (Cue Ethel Merman belting out “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”)

The supportive opening-night audience gave what they could, and the other three actors bravely soldiered on. The set—designed by Josh Clabaugh, stage-managed by Phil Gold, and lit by David Simpson—earned applause when the curtains opened up. The play is set in the 1970s, in the comfortable living room of an upper-class Eastern American home. The costumes by Frank Cazares; the sound designed by David Engel; and the props, by Chuck Yates himself—also the founder of Coyote and producer of this play—contributed nicely to the show.

But I am committed to honesty, so here it is: The play just simply wasn’t ready.

I’ve given nothing but raves to Coyote StageWorks for professionalism, so we must understand that the problem is not some inherent flaw in the mix. Nobody did anything wrong, and there is no blame attached. I’ve actually been in a play in which the lead character was unable to perform (which is a nice way of saying “tossed into the slammer,” ahem, but that’s another story), and the director stepped in to play the part with script in hand. So it can happen—not often, thank heavens, but it happens.

Jones is playing the role of Bradley, the stuffy family patriarch. His wife, Ann, is played by Lee Bryant, a petite dynamo just right for the role. Their privileged children are played by Chuck Yates and Yo Younger, winners of multiple Desert Theatre League awards; they are enjoying flourishing careers, and are well-cast in these roles. The resumes of all four actors are amazing.

The play is written by A.R. Gurney—and if the name doesn’t ring a bell immediately … is there anyone on the planet who hasn’t seen his play Love Letters? I’ve seen it four times, for goodness’ sake. His list of works is stunning.

The play is an incisive and comprehensive look at a family. They meet for cocktails before dinner every evening, and on this autumn day, their son, John (Yates), and daughter, Nina (Younger), join their parents at home. The dialogue mines their conversations to reveal their opinions and feelings about each other and about how they see themselves—both their place in the world and in this family.

John has come home to seek everyone’s blessing for a play he has written … about them. Of course, their reactions are as varied as their personalities. Bradley, the hypochondriac father who is convinced he’s dying, hits the ceiling. Nina, the neurotic and self-centered sister, feels she deserves to be celebrated in print, but wants it on her own terms. Ann, the mother and peacemaker, just doesn’t want any waves made. The “family feelings” become very complicated.

The play goes on to explore how memory works for some, and how one person can remember something differently from another—or might even have forgotten it. Of course, much depends on having all the facts, and when the façade is dissolved by alcohol, this turns out to be a family of secrets.

Yes, another invisible but always-present member of the family is booze. We see people trying to control alcohol by making rules about when and where one can drink, or by putting off drinking time as long as possible, or minimizing their drinking by referring to it as “just a splash.” We watch personality changes occur after drinking. We see opinions change, and we see secrets revealed. We see sibling rivalries emerge and “birth order” stereotypes challenged. We see their views of each other, and even of their servants, transform as cocktails are consumed.

Is it real life, or is it just another cocktail hour?

It’s a play that has considerable power, and is full of insights about the relationships in many families. It shows that even in a family which might look like it has everything, people can experience challenges, confusion, shame, misinterpretations and problems.

If this show can find its feet during its short run, it will most likely be terrific. As I said before, it’s nobody’s fault that it isn’t ready yet, and upcoming performances should be fascinating. (Oh, they should re-think some hair colors, as the son is a silver fox, but daddy still has brown hair.) It’s just that opening night wasn’t ready, and there is some work ahead for Coyote to fulfill this play’s potential.

And who knows—the cool, conditioned air inside the Annenberg Theater might even help with your allergies.

The Cocktail Hour, a production of Coyote StageWorks, is being performed at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 24; 2 p.m., Sunday, March 25; 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 28; 2 p.m., Thursday, March 29; 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 30; 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 31; and 2 p.m., Sunday, April 1, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

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