Gin, guilt, and grandiosity flow in equal measure throughout T.S. Eliot’s imposing 1949 verse drama The Cocktail Party, currently receiving a well-acted but somewhat stultifying revival by the Actors Company Theatre. On first blush a Wildean drawing-room comedy, complete with a colonial ninny and a sort of broken-down Lady Bracknell, the play gradually congeals into a somber disquisition on martyrdom and free will. Before tiptoeing back to his own scouring take on Christianity, Eliot raises Sartre’s nihilism to an even more inescapable level: “Hell is oneself,” grumbles Edward Chamberlayne (Jack Koenig), the London barrister whose fracturing marriage to Lavinia (a superb Erika Rolfsrud) sends them and his conscience-stricken mistress (Lauren English) down wildly divergent paths.
Critics, philosophers, undergrads, and theologians have squabbled for decades over where the moral inquiry stops and the claptrap starts—and Koenig’s overly fussy take on Edward (at least in the first act) combined with Joseph Trapanese’s troweled-on music threaten to tip the balance in the wrong direction. But director Scott Alan Evans gives Eliot’s weightier passages their due, confident in the knowledge that Simon Jones’s efficient turn as a mysterious interloper/confessor/shrink/redeemer will supply the needed ballast. If The Cocktail Party refuses to let its characters wiggle free from its mythopoetic machinations, Jones and the rest of the cast make a spirited contest of the fight.