Like many of Gurney’s plays, The Cocktail Hour is a comedy exploring the world of upper-class families in the Northeastern United States. A review in The New York Times described it as "an examination of an overprivileged family that fights domestic battles while downing drinks."
The setting is an upper-class home in the 1970s. The play opens on Bradley and Ann having preprandial cocktails with their middle-aged, ostensibly single son and daughter. The cocktail hour stretches out because "the maid doesn't know how to cook a roast". So the little family carries on consuming increasing amounts of alcohol leading to increasing arguments. Their son, John, is an editor at a publishing company and a part-time playwright. He has written a play that seems to present an unflattering picture of the family, and the parents are upset. The discussion of John's play, which is also called The Cocktail Hour, gives Gurney a lot of opportunity to lampoon the theatre scene.
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