The intriguing mission of Chicago’s Caffeine Theatre is to “mine the poetic tradition to explore social questions,” which would seem to make T.S. Eliot’s verse drama The Cocktail Party a natural choice for the company.
The play, which Eliot was working on when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, was the most commercially successful of his seven works for the stage. (Cats, adapted by others from his collection of children’s verse, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, doesn’t count.) The 1950 Broadway production of Cocktail won the Tony Award for best play. Written in nonrhyming, noniambic free verse, the play can lay claim to the status of verse essentially only in its typography; delivered from the stage, its lines strike the ear as ordinary, if somewhat brittle, dialogue.
Presented in one of the Athenaeum Theatre’s intimate studio theaters, the Caffeine production of The Cocktail Party uses a single spare set that suggests an upper-middle-class parlor circa 1925. The play centers on the failing marriage of two London socialites, Edward and Lavinia (Paul S. Holmquist and Fannie Hungerford). The lights go up on a small cocktail party in the couple’s home, from which Lavinia is conspicuously absent. Edward concocts a lame excuse for his wife’s absence, but everyone present grasps that she’s left him.
There are five guests at this uneasy gathering. Celia (Kelli Nonemacher) is a single woman who is later revealed to be Edward’s secret lover. Peter is an aspiring filmmaker who is later revealed to be Lavinia’s secret lover, but who also (as he confides to Edward) secretly harbors passionate feelings for Celia.
Excluded from the round robin of adultery are three other characters: Julia (Marssie Mencotti), a nosy, overbearing grand dame; Alex, a frivolous globetrotter with wide-ranging social connections (Scott Olson); and a mysterious unidentified guest (Jason Beck) to whom Edward confesses his marital problems after all the others have left.
Seeking only a neutral ear to tell his troubles to, Edward finds the stranger (later identified as Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly) to be a font of epigrammatic paradoxes (e.g., “There is certainly no purpose in remaining in the dark / Except long enough to clear from the mind / The illusion of having ever been in the light.”) More confoundingly, the mystery guest claims to be in a position to return Edward’s wife to him the following day.
What Edward, Celia, Lavinia, and Peter do not know and never discover is that Alex, Julia, and Sir Henry belong to a benign conspiracy of entities called the Guardians. Eliot doesn’t quite equate the Guardians with angels, but when these three discuss the human condition it is from a lofty external perspective, and their mission on Earth is to nudge and manipulate troubled souls toward higher realms of awareness.
Taking a broad swipe at contemporary therapeutic culture, Eliot has Sir Henry operating under the cover of a psychiatrist, albeit a subversive one who slaps his patients down when they try to talk about their dreams and complexes, confronting them instead with their basic spiritual shortcomings. In Edward the doctor diagnoses an incapacity for love, and in Lavinia a corresponding unlovability. Brought to the awareness that they are perfectly suited to one another, the two reunite and resolve to “make the best of a bad job.”
That’s as good as salvation gets for spiritual mediocrities like Edward and Lavinia, but when Celia consults Sir Henry, he refers her to a special sanatorium reserved for potential saints. “It is a terrifying journey,” he warns her, but she accepts. We hear no more of her until a second, climactic cocktail party two years later, where Alex reveals that Celia went on to join an austere missionary order and was later crucified on an anthill by African heathens. The news of Celia’s martyrdom is a terrible blow to Peter, but the trauma sets him on his own path to deliverance.
Setting aside the fact that these are glaringly strange times in which to revive a work that exalts the courtship of death in the name of faith, it’s hard to see what relevance this play holds today. Its radical pessimism will speak to very few Christians, its Christian message will speak to even fewer radical pessimists, and Eliot’s critique of the talking cure seems quaintly outdated now that psychotherapy has become a subdiscipline of pharmacology.
Considered as a comedy of manners, a drama of ideas, or any other known species of entertainment, the play is a fizzle. Marssie Mencotti manages to impart a small spark of life to prying, gossipy Julia, but Jason Beck is positively grating as Sir Henry, the play’s designated dispenser of wisdom, and the rest of the dramatis personae are dead on arrival. Director Jennifer Shook definitely should have ordered her cast to kill the English accents at the first rehearsal; only Mencotti’s is up to snuff, and the evil effects of accent malfunction on dramatic performance cannot be overstated.