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New comedy by Gurney ranks as his most entertaining play

The Cocktail Hour Comedy by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Starring Nancy Marchand, Keene Curtis, Bruce Davison, Holland Taylor. Father fumes. Siblings recriminate. Mother has the best lines. The temporary kitchen help burns the roast, delaying dinner and permitting A.R. Gurney's ``The Cocktail Hour'' time to recycle the past, air longstanding conflicts, and finally achieve a degree of family reconciliation. Mr. Gurney's most entertaining play to date revisits the upstate New York in which several of his earlier works, including ``The Dining Room,'' have been situated.

Set in the 1970s, the new comedy at the Promenade Theatre concerns the return home of playwright John (Bruce Davison) to sound out family reaction to his new autobiographical play.

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Of all the reactions to the roman `a clef, his father, Bradley's (Keene Curtis), is the most vehement. A stuffy yet well-schooled provincial who married into money, Bradley resents John's making him, his family, and their secrets a spectacle and possible laughingstock before audiences of strangers.

Played by Mr. Curtis with a fine mixture of absurd indignation and pomposity, Bradley attacks not only John's temerity in exposing the tribe but even his son's choice of so ridiculous a profession as playwriting when he has a perfectly successful career in publishing. Bradley offers John $20,000 to leave the play unproduced. After initially refusing, the disconcerted playwright accepts his father's check - at least temporarily.

Bradley's daughter Nina (Holland Taylor) has her own articulate reaction. Nina's complaint is that John has given her merely a minor role, a role she feels she has been destined to play throughout her life. Nina would like, for instance, to liberate herself from the comfortable obligations of banker's wife, at least to the extent of spending three days a week in Cleveland learning to train Seeing Eye dogs. Like others in the con brio production staged by Jack O'Brien, Miss Taylor sharply individualizes a familiar type.

Bradley's wife, Ann (Nancy Marchand), pursues yet another approach to her son's play. Ann earnestly beseeches him to convert the script into a novel, arguing that it could be much longer and would be less conspicuous. Rewarded with some of the evening's most amusing dialogue, Miss Marchand revels in the comic richness of the matriarchal role. She also responds, when the time comes, to the touching moments of what her son calls ``the obligatory scene'' (and Gurney's device for explaining a possible source of John's problems as an adult).

Mr. Gurney skillfully assembles all the pieces for the rite of family passage in his personally reminiscent play-about-a-play. Among other things, ``The Cocktail Hour'' deals with the belated emancipation of a younger generation trying to sort itself out before being overtaken by middle age. While John has chosen his own course, it remains for Nina and unseen brother Jigger to declare their independence before the family clears away the drinks and prepares to sit down to a belated dinner.

Meanwhile, the playwright has reviewed familiar themes involving the passing of a cushioned, middle-American way of life that cossets Bradley and alienates his children. While John hasn't joined the theatrical avant-garde of the 1970s, his theater (and Mr. Gurney's), as well as his language and his psychoanalysis, jars a father who cherishes a middle-class morality along with the great days of the Lunts. As the cause of the successive upsets in the household, Mr. Davison's John is a man who tempers his convictions with humor and even a degree of sympathy.

Certain of the smaller incidental jokes may tend to lose some of their punch with repetition. On the whole, however, ``The Cocktail Hour'' unfolds with the wit and appeal to win an audience ready to applaud a congenially literate and well-made play about four recognizable human beings in a changing American milieu. The d'ecor by scenic and costume designer Steven Rubin is bourgeois traditional. Kent Dorsey lighted the Old Globe Theatre (of San Diego) production.

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Just Say No Farce by Larry Kramer. Directed by David Esbjornson.

``Just Say No'' makes a fetish of bad taste. Whatever its ostensible reformist aim, the new farce by Larry Kramer, author of ``The Normal Heart,'' is a hotchpotch of crude language, disgusting behavior, and vicious lampoons of a first lady and a New York mayor. The estimable WPA Theatre tarnishes its reputation with an exercise in churlishness and scurrility that mistakes bad temper for savage indignation. As a title, ``Just Say No'' writes its own review and epitaph.

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