T.S. ELIOT'S The Cocktail Party, even more than most plays, is open to interpretation. For one thing, it contains virtually no stage directions or visual hints as to what the staged goings-on should look like. But complexity of the script's lines also presents both the director and the audience with the more difficult challenge of deciding what actually is going on.
On this second level the director must offer not necessarily a single interpretation, but at least a consistent perspective from which the audience can approach the play. The current production of Cocktail Party at South House offers a smooth and entertaining show, but director Rebecca Gould seems uncertain what aspects of the convoluted script to highlight. While justifiably unwilling to answer the questions the play poses, she swings too far in the other direction, failing to choose even one or two of those issues as a focus.
Near the end of the play, Peter, a confused young novelist, expresses one of the central paradoxes of Cocktail Party." "But Mr. Henry had been saying, I think, that every minute is a fresh beginning, and Julia, that life is only keeping on; and somehow, the two ideas seem to fit together." The two halves of this perspective show in the contrast between the lives of Edward and Lavinia Chamberlayne and that of Celia Coplestone. The play both begins and ends with one of the Chamberlayne's cocktail parties; they represent the decision to struggle on with the drab existence of whiskey and potato crisps. Celia is absent from the second party; unable to accept the constraints of such a life, she has left to seek peace in her own, absolute terms.
The South House production is most impressive for its overall presentation. The combination of an interesting but unobtrusive set with sell-considered pacing and blocking keeps things lively, as when the action shifts to a different level of the set at the beginning of the second act. The blocking neatly reveals the relationship between Edward (Jon King) and Lavinia (Jody Barrett). During arguments they take opposite sides of the stage; each needs the other in order to know what his own, invariably opposing opinions is. By the end of the play, their physical awkwardness betrays their attempts and failures at closeness.
Bradley Marshall and Jessica Beels as two of "the guardians"--superhumans who guide the others in their choices--add fabulously ludicrous life to the proceedings with each appearance. The third is more imposing: Patrick Bradford fills the role with commanding presence but delivers many of his lines too quickly, a fatal flaw in a character whose main trait is calm control.
The mortal Chamberlaynes display stunning lack of personality without becoming caricatures. King is particularly apt in capturing a half-tipsy and harassed post-party mood during his early scenes. Licia Hurst has more trouble with the difficult role of Celia: she is the one character severely handicapped by her English accent and many of her monologues drag. Alexander Kafka, generally an appealing Peter, takes the character's confusion to an extreme: not only is Peter upset most of the time he's on stage, but one finds it difficult to imagine him ever calm.
THE program notes quote Eliot: "It is not for the dramatist to produce an analyzed character, but for the audience to analyze the character...When the dramatist is creative, then the more creative the dramatist, the greater varieties of interpretation will be possible." If it is the job of the audience to interpret the play, each production must help the audience by focusing on one or two issues. Without this focus, what is richness in a script becomes overwhelming on stage.
Gould hints at such a focus on the chief guardian. Reilly, Addressing the audience directly and mysteriously returning at the play's end, he appears to merit special emphasis. But he remains ambiguous, breaking into humor or losing control with no apparent provocation, and his inconsistencies seem signs of incomplete thought rather than deliberate attempts to reveal other sides of his nature.
Such flaws are apparent only against a backdrop of general success. By the end one is left in a situation like Peter's. "I'm sorry," he spologizes. "I don't believe I've taken in all that you've been saying. But I'm graceful all the same."