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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The BBC television version and subsequent DVD have acquainted millions of people with Beverly, the hostess with the mostest in the way of frustrated sexual energy and tacky taste in Mike Leigh's 1977 middle class mores satire, Abigail's Party. But New Yorkers should thank Scott Elliott and his New Group for the chance to witness the retired beautician's suburban drinks and nibbles party where too many gin and tonics bring out the worst in all present -- not to mention making the hints of potential disaster prophetic.
In case you're unfamiliar with the play which evolved, in Leigh-like fashion, entirely through improvisation during rehearsals, the title is not a mistake or some obscure metaphor. It refers to another party by 15-year-old Abigail who's much talked about but never seen. Having her little party coincides with Abigail's is Beverly's way of killing two birds with one stone -- to give Abigail's mom a place to go and to give her a chance to become better acquainted with Beverly and two newcomers to the development. The parallel parties serve to underscore how little the older adults have grown since their own teen years, and the likelihood that Abigail and her friends will end up as the same sort of emotionally and intellectually empty vessels.
The memorability of Beverly with her grating, if it's on your lung it's on your tongue outspokenness has been attributed to Alison Steadman who created the role originally. But director Scott Elliott's production is blessed with as spot-on and appallingly awful -- and therefore wonderful -- a Beverly as you could wish for in Jennifer Jason Leigh. From the opening scene in which we see her preparing for her party in a too fussy, faux fur trimmed gown, Leigh dominates the stage -- as she dominates her type A realtor husband Laurence (Max Baker) and guests Angela and Tony (Elizabeth Jasicki & Darren Goldstein) and Susan (Lisa Emery). Though she has the showiest part, the other cast members inhabit their characters with equal force. Thanks to dialect coach Stephen Gabis, all have their middle class and below accents down pat, though their best acting relies less on what's said than their facial expressions. This is especially true of Goldstein's Tony, a man of few words but clear as glass hostility (especially towards his wife), and of Emery's Susan, the shy and timid divorcee.
Besides assembling this splendid cast, director Elliott has also wisely refrained from trying to update the play but kept the set, props and script true to the 70s middlebrow look and allusions. This somehow adds to the play's all too up-to-date relevancy. The young people who tend to represent the majority of most New Group audiences will enjoy the yesteryear aura of houses bought for $21,000, shaggy wall-to-wall carpeting, and the coffee table decked out with pineapple-cheese tidbits on toothpicks and cigarettes artfully arranged decorative containers. Despite the better starter home decor now available from Ikea and less smoking, Beverly, Laurences, Angelas and Tonys have plenty of contemporary crude counterparts whose inane chatter would undoubtedly compete with a television set going full blast.
True to its improvisational beginnings, Abigail's Party is less a play with a plot than a night in the lives of people who don't have much in common except that they live in the same real estate complex and are either unhappily divorced or members of the army of the unhappily undivorced. As Beverly dances around her house preparing for her guests, we have a chance to take in the details of Derek McLane's just right upward mobility aspiring interior. When estate salesman husband Laurence arrives, it's immediately evident that he's an over-stressed businessman and that Beverly is not exactly the sort of wife to help him relax.
As the guests arrive we get to know their histories through the homogenized getting acquainted chatter: Angela, who may be cool and capable in her work as a nurse, spinelessly grins and pretends that the taciturn behavior of her former football playing husband Tony isn't a loud and clear signal of his discontent with her as well as his computer operator job. Susan, the party giving Abigail's mother, personifies an abandoned wife coping as best she can with her diminished life -- and, now, with the aggressive Beverly's hostessing maneuvers, which include forcing her to indulge in unaccustomed drinks. (When Susan asks for a sherry, which is not something stocked by social upstarts like Beverly and Laurence, Beverly simply bullies Susan into having a "lovel"y gin and tonic).
The plot arc, such as it is, shows the effects of the alcohol consumed, intensifying the hostilities between the couples and causing the leather couch to be moved to make room for some dancing -- with Beverly and Tony doing a slow sensual dance that sends sexual sparks flying all over the place; Laurence and Susan partnering up in a colder, more formal pas de deux; and Angela, the pretend-happy smile still in place, sitting on the sidelines. At one point the men are dispatched next door to make sure Abigail's party isn't getting out of hand, and finally the phony good time atmosphere and the whole awful evening explodes into a party ending climax.
There are plenty of laughs in watching these low-brow strivers living at the cusp of the Thatcher era. But beneath the play's farcical exterior there's a nerve pulsing with the pain of daily humiliations and disappointments that makes this as much, if not more, tragedy than comedy. It's a party from hell all right, but one that you won't want to miss.
Abigail's Party was last revived in London two years ago. To read that review go here.
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