Party Hardly

If you get invited to Beverly's party, don't go. She will tear you up. Expect debauchery. Expect her to either try to sleep with your husband or worry you about your children. She will also try to get you drunk. Now if you get invited to Abigail's Party, the 1970's play by Mike Leigh about a woman named Beverly who throws a sad little party, and you like to see people get drunk and try to sleep with someone else's spouse, then you might have a good time.

Abigail's Party is not a comedy. It has been called a "dark comedy," and that is more accurate. Though it shares many attributes common to satire (unexpected situations, making fun of a certain group), it has strong elements of tragedy, and in a way it can be seen as such.

True, during the performance there was a lot of laughing; apparently many audiences (and most reviewers) find it very funny. The New York Times called it "a merry slice of misanthropy." And yes, it is funny, although it is the kind of humor that makes you wonder why you are laughing. There is a pervading sense that the two middle-class couples and one divorcée sharing their lives with us onstage deserve more sympathy than ridicule. Their glib comparisons and nonchalant conversations about alcoholism, divorce, and domestic violence are a fiercely sad sort of humor. The play's focus on these poor schlubs is so intense that it ignites into flames, and the blaze, while short, is impressive. Yet it leaves the audience with little warmth.

Abigail's Party is in fact about Beverly's party. Abigail herself is never seen in the play, though her party is raging down the street. Abigail's party represents the longing for the other: the better party, the younger crowd, a better life.

At Beverly's sordid soirée, she and her husband Laurence, a middle manager (played frantically by Max Baker) who fancies himself cultured, are host to their neighbors for an alcohol-infused evening. Beverly is without a doubt the master of the house, and of the play, as she plots to perpetually harass her husband, placate Abigail's worried mother Susan (Lisa Emery), debauch the mousy newlywed Angela (Elizabeth Jasicki), and seduce Angela's brooding husband Tony (Darren Goldstein). In short, Beverly wants to ensure that everyone has a good time.

In fact, partying with Beverly (an aging trophy wife played excellently by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is worth it if you go prepared with a taste for the bleak humor. The strength of the piece lies in the poignantly understated desire that permeates every folly, foible, and fixation of the miserable suburban wrecks on display. Think Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? minus the American academic intellectuals.

The dialogue sizzles with animosity and loathing. Husband and wife duos are more combatants holding drinks than partners in marriage. They valiantly attempt to harm each other, emotionally as well as physically. But with all the crisp dialogue, there is essentially very little plot. This may be a product of the improvisational script-development style that playwright and filmmaker Mike Leigh is known for. Leigh arrives at the first rehearsal without a written script, bringing instead a basic idea for the play. He relies heavily on what the actors contribute to this idea. The actors create the characters, and they look for their characters' motives to create the plot.

In the case of Abigail's Party, this leads to highly developed characters who drink a mean Cosmo but essentially have nowhere to go. The piece is more a shrewd meditation on the desires of middle-class English suburbanites in the late 1970's than a lucid narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. Indeed, the "ending" seems like a copout that results because of time constraints, not the culmination of a finely tuned story.

Jennifer Jason Leigh (no relation to the playwright) is stunning as Beverly. She seduces, she chortles, she harasses, and she gets what she wants through a sashaying of her hips and her piercing, repetitive shriek of her husband's name.

Elizabeth Jasicki as the demure Angela is wonderfully nerdy, while Lisa Emery as the understated Susan strikes a fine note of balance. Darren Goldstein as the gruff former footballer Tony, Angela's abusive husband and the object of Beverly's desire, is dead-on: he is dispassionate, angry, threatening, and, above all, silent.

The set by Derek McLane, a kitschy 1970's creation, is fabulous. It's the nightmare post-disco décor that now older people were either too cheap or too poor to rid themselves of when they were younger.

Party on if you like. But if you laugh, just be ready to feel a guilty hangover.

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