Revisiting themes and a primary character from “The Cocktail Hour,” A.R. Gurney succumbs to his own form of sequelitis in “Labor Day,” which is ironic, since the play spends some time skewering the crass commercial considerations that have spread from filmdom into theater. Gurney’s gentle comic touch is as sure as ever here, but the play is almost determinedly inconsequential, and it’s doubly disappointing as a followup of sorts to one of his most resonant, emotionally engaging works.
An artificial air hangs over the premise, which finds a dramatist, John (Josef Sommer), causing a family commotion when his new play is revealed to be an autobiographical drama with characters drawn a little too clearly from life. Yes, that was essentially the plot of “The Cocktail Hour,” too, but in that play it was entirely credible that a middle-aged playwright’s proper parents would be scandalized at the idea of their familial foibles being aired before paying audiences. It’s far less easy to believe that the grown children of an elderly playwright would be aflutter at the idea that dad has based his new play on his own family life.
But such is the case in “Labor Day,” as an ambitious, young gay director (think Joe Mantello) arrives at John’s Connecticut house on the holiday of the title to hash out some problems in his new play. It seems the director, Dennis (Brooks Ashmanskas), finds the denouement too sentimental, and so do the folks at the Seattle Rep, and the folks at the Shubert Organization, and even Robert Redford, whose interest in taking the lead role is chief among the play’s implausibilities (he seems to have been chosen to cue a joke about his fabled handsomeness).
John, who is flush with a new love of life after a recent battle with cancer, stands by the play’s warm ending, in which the hero returns happily to the womb of his family, even as his own family hearth begins to boil over with conflict. Perhaps sensing that the question of whether or not a play will be rewritten to satisfy Robert Redford isn’t sufficiently compelling to drive two hours of theater, Gurney tosses in a minor tussle between John’s martinet daughter Ginny (Veanne Cox) and lug son Ralph (James Colby) over tennis etiquette, and a more momentous drama surrounding his daughter Mandy, who apparently finds the family get-together a suitable occasion to announce she’s leaving her husband for an unsuitable lover. (We’re told she was inspired to finally make the break by the brouhaha over dad’s play.)
The latter trauma dominates the play’s final scenes, but it’s hard to engage much interest in an emotional storm that takes place offstage, with Ginny and Ralph somewhat stagily running on and off to announce each development. Since John at one point confesses that Mandy is in some way his most beloved child, it seems odd that Gurney has contrived to keep her out of the picture. Like John, he seems to be intent on banishing any significant conflict from his play, but he doesn’t supply anything of moment to take its place.
By and large, the characters aren’t drawn with enough depth. Ginny gets a speech about her father not really knowing her that might have been lifted from the sister role in “The Cocktail Hour.” Cox, who can be a very charming comic actress, overdoes the stridency here, and is off-putting. Colby fares better as Ralph, but this blue-collar boy doesn’t seem the type to spring from the Connecticut countryside, and would the son of a lifelong playwright really be quite so squeamish in the presence of a gay man?
Indeed virtually all the characters seem fuzzily conceived. John’s wife Ellen is initially written and elegantly played by Joyce Van Patten as weary and wise, and then has a silly scene in which she starts dictating cute ideas about the kids to put in John’s play. But her notions are no more daft than that hotshot young director’s; he suggests the protagonist leave his family for Rwanda, or some other PC touchstone.
Director Jack O’Brien draws a touching performance from Sommer as the playwright who is the subdued center of the play, but John isn’t a commandingly written character either: A joke about John’s plays concerning “WASPs farting around on a stage” cuts too close to home. Indeed, much of the theatrical theorizing in the play seems designed to slyly trump critics’ accusations about Gurney’s oeuvre. “You call that lightweight?” he seems to be saying. “I’ll show you lightweight!” It’s a pity, because at his best Gurney can illuminate with graceful, comic poise the deep recesses of sadness and disappointment that lie beneath layers of smooth sociability. But like the playwright who is its subject, “Labor Day” finds Gurney working at something less than the top of his form.