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The Theatre Company of Boston has done such good works over its short history that I find myself reluctant to say anything unkind about it. But, unfortunately, this spirited little repertory group has at last made the mistake of choosing for performance a play beyond the abilities of most of its members. The comprehensive criticisms I feel compelled to make of the current production of Eliot's The Cocktail Party are not intended maliciously; I am still a passionate admirer of the Company.
The Cocktail Party is one of the best plays in English. It speaks with marvelous clarity on the problems of the human condition, probes the nature of faith and despair, and, amazingly enough, makes excellent theater. Part of its appeal is the interaction Eliot has managed to contrive among its many "levels:" the Alcestis myth, the theological essay, the drawing-room comedy. The language of the play, for example, is more than one kind of language; although it moves in strict classical meters, it reproduces exactly the cadences of upper middle-class London speech.
What is so disastrous about the Theatre Company's production is its total insensitivity to the vital complexity of Eliot's work. In fact, David Wheeler has directed the play as if it were nothing more than a drawing-room comedy. His actors spoil the beautiful rhythm of their lines by deliberately stuttering and halting over them for a kind of dramatic effect. All the dramatic effect one can possibly ask for is right in the dialogue; one simply has to speak it naturally. As a result of this superficial treatment, much of the metaphor of the play goes unnoticed, and the deeply philosophical second act seems horribly out of place.
Mr. Wheeler has as much trouble with more practical matters. Most obviously, very few of his actors are suited to their parts. Paul B. Price has been terribly miscast as Edward; his voice is all wrong, his gestures are all wrong, his appearance is all wrong. Lisa Richards' plays Celia Coplestone as if she thinks Eliot imagined his saintly heroine to be a Vassar senior with a stuffed-up nose. Not surprisingly, the conversation between Edward and Celia at the end of the first act is painfully botched.
The best member of the cast, Harriet Rogers, makes a good Julia, and Frederick M. Kimball tries to be properly cryptic as the mysterious psychiatrist, Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, though I found his mannerisms a bit tiring after a while. Dustin Hoffman might be acceptable as Peter Quilpe had not some idiot decided to dress him up and have him act like a teenage busboy at a summer camp. Even if Peter is little more than an eager lad beginning a career in the cinema, he has a lot more substance than Hoffman brings to the part. Paul Benedict, a sort of anchor-man in this repertory group, gives the audience some good comedy as Alex, but I am disappointed to see how inflexible he is an actor. He adds a slight Scottish burr for the present occasion; otherwise he hasn't changed a whit from what he was in Waiting for Godot and Picnic on the Battle-field, other recent Theatre Company productions. A born comic like Benedict is of little use in repertory theater if he cannot adapt to new roles.
The other major role, that of Lavinia, is handled adequately by Bronia Stefan. On opening night, however, tragedy struck again in the two very minor parts. Jody Claflin (who, according to the program, "began her acting career when she played the Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland at the age of seven") bungled completely her brief appearance as the Nurse-Secretary. And Timothy Affleck was just as inept as a Caterer's Man. (The program tells us that he "marched at the head of the town parade in Groton, Massachusetts, in 1949.") As usual, the Theatre Company comes up with good sets and professional lighting for its latest presentation.
I have been hard on this production because I am extremely fond of The Cocktail Party and hate to see it murdered. Repertory theater is a good thing and the Theatre Company of Boston is a very good think. pany of Boston is a very good thing. One expects such a company to have its failings and its limitations, but one also expects the director of such a company to realize those limitations and not try to tackle something outside them. David Wheeler has made just that mistake in putting on The Cocktail Party.
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