The Cocktail Party

By T.S. Eliot
MF Productions
Directed by Elysa Marden
The Interlude
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

Eliot's longish (two hours and 45 minutes) ``comedy,'' set among England's comfy classes, proved surprisingly entertaining in MF Productions' interpretation, which unfortunately had too brief a run. Central to the tale are Edward (Jeffrey Edward Peters, in a performance reminiscent of Eliot's own prim J. Alfred Prufrock) and Lavinia Chamberlayne (the latter played with the natural calm of the upper-class wife by Katherine Freedman), a couple suffering from the midlife, upper-class, upper-middlebrow blues. Lavinia thinks she can solve the problem by leaving -- with disastrous timing, since she has invited Everyone to the eponymous party.

But she returns, and it is now Edward's chance to leave. He does so, but he doesn't have enough shirts ... the only way out of his quandary is for the two of them to get back together, helped by the mysterious Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, a (presumed) doctor on Harley Street with a taste for gin (John Prince).

This tale unfolds with such seriousness as to sound ... well, serious, especially interwoven with the soapy strands of Celia Coplestone (in an almost brittle performance by Terrilynn Towns) and Peter Quilpe (Mark Shanahan, in a confusion of love vs. ambition), who almost fall in love but not quite. Peter goes to California to become a successful screenwriter, and poor Celia goes off to the Third World to become ... a martyr, crucified near a large anthill. (As it turns out, Peter was also Lavinia's lover and Celia was Edward's mistress.)

Adding mystery to this tale are three secret guardians: Sir Henry, Julia Shuttlethwaite (an older busybody, aggressively played by Julia McLaughlin), and Alexander MacColgie Gibbs (an effete man-about-town who knows just everyone, here and abroad, played with aplomb by Gary Cowling). Julia and Alex shepherd neurotics to Sir Henry's office, where he helps them decide major life crises with a mixture of commonsense, esoteric philosophy, and secular mumbo-jumbo. (The play has a hard time deciding whether it's a satire on marriage counseling -- a subject no doubt touchy to Eliot, whose wife apparently was mentally ill -- or that '40s tearjerker Brief Encounter.)

Nevertheless, the cast, ably rounded out by Lily Koster in a couple of cameos, tossed the bristling dialog around as though it were by Noel Coward -- no mean feat, since it is supposedly written in ``free verse.'' It must be like juggling eggs on a bicycle.

(All of the cast were decisive in their dialect, but some were less accurate than others, raising the question: could the play be adapted to take place on Manhattan? Could David Mamet repeat his feat with J.B. Priestley's Dangerous Corner by adapting it to modern times? Sir Henry, who could just as easily have been a mysterious American, would have benefited the most from the change in nationality. And it's a short leap from allowing push-button phones on the set to having a complete cultural transplant.)

The living-room set -- which doubled as Sir Henry's office-- proved amenable to the three-quarter-round staging, even though characters often had to sit with their backs to the audience, as director Elysa Marden kept them moving around. The charming costumes (Isabel Rubio) showed the influence of good tailoring and tasteful coordination. The background music (Raymond D. Schilke) carefully blended show tunes with chamber music and Stravinsky. And the complex lighting (Deborah Constantine) underpinned the various moods of the piece like a tailored undergarment.

Box Score:
Writing 1
Directing 2
Acting 1
Set 2
Costumes 2
Lighting/Sound 2
Copyright 1996 John Chatterton

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