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Produced by Washington Stage Guild at Carroll Hall to February 4

During all of the first two acts and a goodly portion of the third, patrons at Washington Stage Guild (WSG)’s revival of The Cocktail Party are apt to be wondering why T.S. Eliot’s elliptical drama isn’t produced more often. The answer, when it finally comes, has to do with lyrically heightened expectations being hard to live up to.

Eliot was a mystic as well as a poet, and he fashioned The Cocktail Party as a decidedly ethereal gathering, with the partygoers including a mysterious Unidentified Guest and a couple of quasi-scrutable chatterboxes who circle the main characters like spiritual vultures. Lavinia Chamberlayne (Helen Hedman) has just left her husband as the lights come up, without remembering to cancel the party. Her husband Edward (Conrad Feininger) is as annoyed as he is depressed, since not only is his mistress Celia (Amy Larion) in attendance, barely able to contain her elation at the breakup of his marriage, but Celia’s unsuspecting suitor, Peter (Daniel Luna), has asked Edward to intercede with her on his behalf.

All of these rootless folks claim to be having nervous breakdowns, so in the second act, the playwright sends them to a psychiatrist who turns out to be the party’s Unidentified Guest (Bill Largess). His analytical method owes much to Catholic ritual, in part because Eliot regarded psychiatrists as father confessors for those who have no religion, and in part because the play’s concerns are resolutely spiritual. Soon the patients are being reconciled to their lives, or sent off to higher destinies, and the playwright is waxing mystical. In Act 3, alas, he comes back down to earth with a thud by actually articulating his theme, which comes out as a flatly disappointing, decidedly unpoetic, “every moment is a new beginning…and life goes on.”

At the play’s Broadway opening in 1950, a befuddled Brooks Atkinson wrote for the New York Times that “Mr. Eliot’s thoughts and religious faith are no doubt all there for theatergoers who are in tune with his metrical abstractions.” But he went on to say he didn’t personally understand the play, and suggested turning to the script, “since it is too compact and too allusive to be assimilated from the stage.”

Sounds like a Woolly Mammoth play, doesn’t it? Well, that thought occurred to the folks at Washington Stage Guild, who asked Woollies Lee Mikeska Gardner and Howard Shalwitz to shepherd the production for them, Gardner serving as director, Shalwitz as consultant. Having worked together on the Woolly Mammoth smash Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) and a variety of other eccentric evenings, they bring a nicely subversive sensibility to WSG. And what they seem to have discovered is that—Atkinson notwithstanding—the play is every bit as clear and direct on stage as on the page. Maybe more so, since its loose, unrhymed iambic pentameter looks plenty daunting in print, yet sounds when spoken like casual conversation.

The evening’s design is as spare and economical as Eliot’s language, and Gardner’s staging keeps the evening moving blithely along, while still allowing the characters to make an impact. Hedman and Feininger are fine as the central couple, especially during the scenes in which they’re being stripped of their illusions. Larion and Luna also manage some evocative moments when the chips are down, while June Hansen and Morgan Duncan are clearly enjoying the assignment of chirping madly away on the sidelines. Largess isn’t the sort of actor who suggests great spiritual depths, but he’s enigmatic enough as the psychiatrist to get by.

What none of them can do is keep the playwright’s third act from being a letdown, but frankly, for those interested in seeing an Eliot work (besides Cats) on stage, there’s enough intrigue in the evening’s first two-thirds that that won’t matter much.CP