The Cocktail Party
Written by T.S. Eliot
Directed by Claude d'Estree
At the Divinity School
This Saturday and Sunday
IT may be winter for the audience, but the cruel April of the family sitting room comes to the stage in a production of The Cocktail Party to mark the hundredth anniversary of the birth of T.S. Eliot '10.
It's no happy hour for the characters in this play. They have to deal with infidelity, death and unhappiness in general. And though the play's tone may be humorous, the issues at stake are far from frivolous.
The Cocktail Party is a mature play, and it is appropriate that it is performed by a more mature cast than most Harvard productions (the actors are all Divinity School students who took a class on Eliot as theologian). However, to paraphrase the children's rhyme, when the acting is good, it's very, very good, but when it's bad, it's horrid.
Edward (Dick Robinson) comes home from work minutes before he and his wife Lavinia (Olivia Holmes) are to give a cocktail party, only to discover that she has left him. Though he tries to cancel the party, he is unable to reach all the guests and to prevent them from coming.
Assuming Eliot intended the part to be portrayed as Robinson does, it's easy to understand why "Vinnie" (whose name, not coincidentally, is reminiscent of Eliot's wife Vivien) leaves Edward. Phlegmatic, apathetic, even dull, Robinson's Edward embodies an extreme lack of emotion. At first, this seems reasonable, but when Robinson fails to display even the slightest emotion in lines that are heavily charged, Robinson's style can not be excused.
THE toast of the evening is Anita Houch, who plays Dr. Henrietta Reilly. In the original script, the doctor and Alex, another guest, were men, but in this production women play the roles. The sex changes do not seem to matter very much, and they certainly work well.
Houch revels in her role as the "unindentified guest," one of Eliot's guardian angels who protect the play's other characters. Despite her diminutive stature, Houch makes her presence felt. Adept in the roles of guest, advisor and therapist, she is the walking antithesis to Robinson's passivity.
Houch sets in motion the cocktail hour gossip that keeps the plot buzzing along. Julie Shuttlewaithe (Ann Schellenberg) noses her way into Edward's apartment to keep up on the latest gossip. She's also a guardian angel, albeit a garish one (that someone actually would wear such hideous clothes as hers staggers the imagination).
Alex (Glenda Walker) lends an Oriental flavor to the play with her talk of the mythical land of Kinkaja, where monkeys, sacred to some natives but delectable to others, threaten the stability of His Majesty's Government. Walker's performance is natural and unaffected. Unfortunately, it is also inept at times. But at least she remembers her lines, which is more than Schellenberg and Robinson can do.
If execution lags behind expectation, the Divinity School's The Cocktail Party nonetheless packs its punch. It's an encouraging alternative to undergraduate theater. Give it a shot.