Here’s a statistic that will make you jump: The original Broadway production of T.S. Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party” was a commercial hit that played for 409 performances. It also won its author a Tony Award. Of course that was in 1950, back in the days when it was taken for granted that anyone with a college degree in anything wouldn’t need to be told who wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and could probably even quote the first three lines from memory. Eliot actually turned up on the cover of Time, though not until two months after “The Cocktail Party” opened, which says much about how central the play once was to his reputation.
[ From left, Jeremy Beck, Cynthia Harris, Simon Jones, Lauren English, Mark Alhadeff and Jack Koenig in ‘The Cocktail Party.’]
Times have changed, and so has Eliot’s reputation. Just as his Christian conservatism is now viewed with bristling suspicion by academics whose benighted parents and grandparents thought him a genius, so have “The Cocktail Party” and his other postwar verse dramas vanished from the stage. The Actors Company Theatre’s Off-Broadway revival of “The Cocktail Party” marks the first time in four decades that the play has been performed in New York.
To look at the 1950 reviews of “The Cocktail Party” is a fascinating exercise, if not exactly illuminating. Brooks Atkinson described it as “a verbose and elusive drama that has to be respected,” while George Jean Nathan dismissed it as “bosh, sprinkled with mystic cologne.” Most of their colleagues on the aisle seem to have found it hard to figure out what Eliot was up to, though I can’t think why. “The Cocktail Party” is clearly a parable of sainthood—but one that Eliot made palatable to the matinée crowd by cunningly embedding it in a boulevard comedy in which the word “God” is never uttered.
Into a London drawing room populated with witty adulterers strolls an Unidentified Guest (Simon Jones) whose mission is to nudge the host (Jack Koenig) and his younger lover (Lauren English) off the road to hell. The Unidentified Guest proves to be a cross between a psychiatrist and a priest, and his professional counsel is all of a piece with Eliot’s stern view of the world: “The best of a bad job is all any of us make of it— / Except of course, the saints.”
If you quail at the thought of such cold comfort, then “The Cocktail Party” will likely strike you as smotheringly preachy. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to suspend religious disbelief and give Old Possum a chance to do his stuff, then I suspect you’ll be transfixed by the stealthy skill with which he goes about the challenging task of making sainthood comprehensible to a secular audience. It helps that this production, transparently directed by Scott Alan Evans and simply but elegantly designed by Andrew Lieberman and Laura Jellinek, is being performed with élan by a high-class ensemble cast. Mr. Koenig and Erika Rolfsrud are excellent as the quarrelsome married couple whose estrangement sets the plot in motion, while Ms. English is entirely believable as a saint-in-waiting. Mr. Jones is the star of the show, and I can’t imagine anyone topping his quizzically urbane performance (except, perhaps, for Alec Guinness, who created the role of the Unidentified Guest).
The run of “The Cocktail Party” has been extended by a week. It should have been a year.
The Cocktail Party
The Actors Company Theatre,Beckett Theatre,
410 W. 42nd St.
extended through April 17
Here’s the link to another interesting article that ran on Backstage.com: