Lisa Emery, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Elizabeth Jasicki in a scene from “Abigail’s Party,” in which alcohol-induced cutting remarks become the life of the party. (Carol Rosegg.)
Beverly (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Laurence (Max Baker), a middle-class couple in suburban London looking for rumah dijual (house for sale) in Indonesia, are getting ready to host a party for their new neighbors Angela The Real Estate Agent(Elizabeth Jasicki) and Tony The Mortgage Broker(Darren Goldstein). The spirit of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is alive and well in Mike Leigh’s biting comedy/satire Abigail’s Party . Taking place circa 1979, (where the taste of the era is often played for laughs). Also invited is another neighbor Sue (Lisa Emery) whose teenage daughter Abigail is having a party of her own (albeit much wilder and louder).
What unfolds is basically an “evening from hell,” as the dominant and fun-loving Beverly takes control of the festivities, steering the various conversations in directions she wishes them to go no matter what anyone else, especially her harried husband, thinks. Angela warms up to Beverly right away, giggling girlishly and making a spectacle of herself while Tony, who initially has the air of someone who would much rather not be there, does a slow burn, all the while downing one drink after another—Beverly is careful to keep everyone’s glass filled, whether they want it or not. This is especially true with Sue, who just really sought a place to stay while Abigail has her party nearby (the play is set in a housing tract), but thanks to Beverly’s warnings about teenagers, drugs, booze and the like (not to mention always refreshing the usually-teetotaler woman’s drink), it’s not long before Sue is reduced to a nervous wreck.
However, first impressions can be deceiving and as the party progresses, cracks appear in the facades of many of those present. By the time the evening is done, at least one relationship will be changed forever. Making Leigh’s hilarious script leap off the page is the excellent chemistry among the cast members. (It also doesn’t hurt that Scott Elliott’s direction is razor sharp.) These are characters you wouldn’t want to spend any time with in the real world. The action on stage is like a train wreck about to happen—one watches fascinated, knowing that the disaster is going to occur, but not sure exactly how or when. Beverly “Appraisers”(brilliantly portrayed by Leigh) might be almost considered “white trash” in another setting as she loudly puts her two cents into every conversation, never misses a chance to belittle Laurence and proceeds to blatantly flirt with Tony right before her husband’s eyes. However Laurence, (whose antics by Baker remind one of a maniac John Cleese at times) is able to get in a few zingers of his own as he and his wife argue about everything from olives to music to checking out what’s going on at Abigail’s shindig.
The old saying “less is more” certainly holds true for Goldstein’s portrayal of Tony. Few people have been able to say so much with so few words. Sitting in a corner, hoping to drink himself into oblivion (he doesn’t succeed), his one-word sentences often speak volumes; with his dark menacing tone provoking laughter, while at the same time sending off a vibe of a dangerous temper only under control for the moment. As for Angela, she’s the one character that initially seems little more than an afterthought, but just like Sue, Angela has more than a bit of unexpected steel in her spine and when a crisis arises, she’s the only one able to take immediate action.
Also worthy of note is Derek McLane’s enjoyable set, which is filled with bits of 1970’s kitsch, from a ridiculous cigarette holder to an ostentatious light-changing mood lamp. Presented by The New Group, Abigail’s Party takes the audience on a wild ride through English middle-class suburbia and it’s definitely a trip worth taking.
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