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The Cocktail Party

The Actors Company Theatre presents an impeccable revival of this too-infrequently-seen T. S. Eliot work.

Erika Rolfsrud and Jack Koenig
in The Cocktail Party
(© Carol Rosegg)
T. S. Eliot labeled his 1950 work The Cocktail Party a comedy, and there are plenty of satisfying yuks in The Actors Company Theatre's impeccable revival of the too-infrequently-seen work, now at the Beckett Theatre. But much more than giddy party banter goes on in the master poet's now-amusing, now-solemn work.

The playwright's mindset is implied by the Andrew Lieberman-Laura Jellinek set, a suave room constructed of gray-flannel-like paneled walls suggesting a series of interlocking crucifixes. Eliot, an American who became an English citizen earlier in the 20th Century and joined the Church of England, couldn't have been more serious about his conversion at a time when Freud's presence in Great Britain had established psychiatry as a new form of worship. So it's hardly coincidental that Eliot penned this work, in which a figure initially called "An Unidentified Guest" (Simon Jones) appears as a god-like and shrink-like spiritual messenger.

The play initially takes place in the pristinely furnished living-room of the Chamberlaynes, although only barrister Edward (Jack Koenig) is on hand to receive those whom his absent-for-the-moment wife, Lavinia (Erika Rolfsrud) has invited. The chattiest attendee is Julia Shuttlethwaite (Cynthia Harris), but the others -- including well-mannered Celia Coplestone (Lauren English), vibrant Alexander MacColgie Gibbs (Mark Alhadeff), and reticent Peter Quilpe (Jeremy Beck) -- occasionally chime in with the sort of light-hearted gossip that complements the potato crisps served.

Eliot's intent is to stand cocktail-party superficiality on its head by exposing the gathering's unhappy undercurrents and getting to his real purpose -- a treatise on salvation and redemption. So once the party has ended, the guests return to reveal certain worries and preoccupations. Meanwhile, Edward keeps up the pretense that Lavinia, who has left him, is only visiting an ill aunt.

After Lavinia has returned and confronted Edward, Eliot arranges it so that both of them consult the unidentified guest, who's actually the physician Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly. He challenges the pair to face their misgivings about themselves and reassess their marriage. When they leave, he also advises the troubled Celia. Whether all comes right in the end, though, isn't the point.

Director Scott Alan Evans obviously has an affinity for the play's sentiments and rhythms, and he has actors at his disposal with the right honed techniques. As Harcourt-Reilly, Jones gives another of his authoritative performances, and his face-offs with the handsome Koenig -- whose jawline looks to be carved from marble -- are galvanizing. Harris is unfailing funny as deceptively gabby Julia; Rolfsrud is an aristocratic Lavinia; and both Alhadeff and Beck are flawless as partygoers with their own secrets.

It's worth noting that The Cocktail Party is a verse play -- a genre that rarely dares speak its name nowadays for fear of causing a box-office freeze. From the way, Eliot structured the piece, however, and from the way it's delivered by the outstanding ensemble, ticket buyers would never guess its infrastructure.