By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
"In vino, veritas" goes the Latin saying: "In wine, truth" -- the idea being that what may be suppressed in everyday life will come to light after a few drinks. The ancient Athenians went so far as to legalize this belief for a time: In critical votes citizens voted twice, once while sober and once while not. When the outcome differed, the city knew there was more talking to be done before any decision should be made. That's pretty much the operating principle underlying two plays currently on the South Florida boards. Though widely different in settings and style, both The Weir at the New Theatre in Coral Gables and The Cocktail Hour at the Caldwell in Boca Raton center on drink and truth-telling -- with a whole lot of both.
The Weir was written by the up-and-coming young playwright Conor McPherson, who has enjoyed critical acclaim in London and New York for this evocative, mysterious play. It takes place in an Irish country pub on a cold, windy night. Like the pub itself, the story seems suspended in time, as the bartender, Brendan, begins to sweep out the room. With his long hair and rough clothes, Brendan could be the barkeep in one of many centuries; it takes awhile before it's clear that this is a modern story.
When a pair of local men, Jack and Jim, sit before the peat-burning fire to share quips and a considerable volume of malt beverages, their conversation seems ageless. It seems a fourth friend, the well-to-do businessman Finbar, is expected to show up with a young woman from Dublin, Valerie, in tow. Since Finbar is married, the men wonder at his sudden interest in Valerie and what it's all leading to. When Finbar and Valerie do arrive, the awkward situation seems initially alleviated by the telling of local ghost tales to acquaint her with the legends of the area. But each old tale seems darker and eerier than the next; the mood grows increasingly somber. As the whiskey flows and inhibitions wane, some very personal, very modern ghost stories emerge.
McPherson has an excellent ear for the rhythms and undercurrents of his characters' language, but those expecting strong narrative focus or drive may come away somewhat disappointed. In lesser hands this simple, word-driven play might ordinarily lead to little in the way of entertainment. This production, fortunately, is blessed with several assets -- not the least of which is the intimate theater space itself.
Most important, Rafael de Acha has assembled a superior acting ensemble, which he directs with his usual subtle, delicate style. Each performance -- Matthew Wright's loquacious Jack, David Kwiat's ever-thirsty Jim, Wayne E. Robinson, Jr.'s expansive but edgy Finbar, David Mann's quiet Brendan and Lisa Morgan's haunted Valerie -- is portrayed with admirable simplicity and honesty. The stories these characters tell, the memories they recall, are so evocative that the play develops a second layer of reality, creating characters and situations of the imagination.
As has been the case all season, de Acha's production team continues to deliver first-rate support. The play's setting is vivid enough to be considered a character in its own right. Michelle Cumming's simple yet beautifully conceived set design carefully mirrors the dynamics of this script. The general feel is naturalistic: darkened rafters, bare wood floors, and the requisite pub signs. But the angles of this pub are in forced perspective, and the paintinglike photos on walls don't quite hang on them; they float suspended in the air. The set plays with the audience's sense of space -- as the play itself plays with the sense of time. In this Ireland the past and present are merged. The ghosts, the photographs, the memories don't go away; they just keep on haunting us, no matter what the time or weather.
Meanwhile in Boca Raton, the Caldwell serves up The Cocktail Hour, A.R. Gurney's bittersweet comedy about one upscale, Waspy family in Buffalo, New York. The older son of the family, John, a middle-age playwright, returns from New York City to his parents' home to join in the cocktail hour, the nightly family ritual that his father, Bradley, relishes as the epitome of civilized life. He holds nothing dearer than drinks with his wife Ann, conversation, and family togetherness.
But John reveals that he's not there to drink; he's there to ask permission to depict the family in a play he wrote and plans to get produced, one that happens to be called The Cocktail Hour. Bradley, who mistrusts John's intentions, is indignant that John would plan to display his family on the stage for strangers to laugh at. John tries to defend his work as a bittersweet portrait of one Waspy family in Buffalo, but Bradley won't hear of it and tries to bribe John to shelve the project. As the drinks begin to flow, the contest between father and son deepens as John strives to find out why his father has always kept him at arm's length. When the booze leads the rest of the family to reveal their long-suppressed conflicts as well, the old-fashioned family values Bradley has sought to maintain start to crumble.