A pot of monkfish stew sits on the stove for most of Muswell Hill, Torben Betts’s barbed comedy—simmering, bubbling, issuing forth its varied flavors gradually and subtly. As does Muswell Hill. Set in 2010 in the titular leafy upscale London suburb—the equivalent of, say, Saddle River on this side of the pond—Betts’s work presents a troubled dinner party of mismatched individuals and couples, talking past and misunderstanding one another, drinking too much even though at least two begin as teetotalers, letting their libidos lead them to unwise decisions, and revealing personality traits simultaneously unexpected and inevitable. We’re in what seems familiar Alan Ayckbourn territory for much of it, then the hurts and regrets pile up, and the curtain falls on a very funny comedy that has also become a sad commentary on human foibles.
About that stew: Its chef is Jess (Colleen Clinton), owner of the elegant, very white kitchen (set design by Edward T. Morris; the Barrow Group Mainstage Theatre has been divided into a rather oddly shaped three-sided auditorium to accommodate it), a superachieving accountant at an elite London firm who seems to do everything well. Her marriage to Mat (Jason Alan Carvell) also seems, at first, in a good place: Once a high-paid model, he’s been taking time off to write a novel, which, after several rejections, Jess suggests she’s willing to self-publish. But Mat drops a real bomb on their relationship, something he’s discovered about her which they have to talk about, but can’t—the buzzer rings, the first party guest has arrived. That’s Karen (Lily Dorment), a good pal of Jess’s, who cares for terminal cancer patients and is observing the anniversary of the death of her late, much-lamented husband. She’s chattery and has a too-ready laugh; indeed, the whole eventual sextet, under Shannon Patterson’s deft direction, demonstrate individual nervous tics that feel integral, not pasted on.
The other guests aren’t just a motley crew; they’re a cross-section of a certain segment of London society, each more complicated than it seems at first. Simon (Richard Hollis), an old school chum of Mat’s, has socialist-anarchist tendencies, is luckless with women (understandably, given his temper and negativity), and drinks so much that you hope the onstage wine bottles are filled with grape juice. “I do not want to be an ordinary person,” he confides, and let’s say he succeeds in that. Annie (Sarah Street, splendid), Jess’s little sister, is openhearted, vulnerable, and stagestruck. Luckily for the latter trait, or more likely not, she’s brought along her new fiancé, Tony (John Pirkis), a pompous, alcoholic actor-turned-director who’s already married and nearly three times her age. Yet in Betts’s convincingly detailed universe, he’s not a total villain. Nor, for all his social ineptness and ill will, is Simon.
The laughs aren’t always laugh-out-loud, but they’re always deeply character-driven. Often, perhaps too often, they’re triggered by characters’ bad timing—Karen entering just as Simon’s saying something vile about her, Annie laughing at a phone message just as Karen’s sharing a tragic confidence with someone else. (There are dozens of entrances and exits, and Betts might have endeavored to better explain why this character is here instead of there at this moment.)
Circa-2010 politics enters it, too: The optimism surrounding the young Obama era will make much of the audience misty with nostalgia, and the death toll from a Haitian earthquake (the one where refugees are just now being kicked out of the U.S.) occasions both isn’t-it-awful banalities from the group and, from Simon, more uncivil muttering about how “this flat is built on the blood of the world’s poor!”
The relationships among the six really do evolve, and Betts is notably smart at knowing when to reveal important information about a character’s history or point of view. Each is an expert self-deceiver, each is brought to an emotional breaking point, there are confrontations and apologies and awkwardnesses galore—and, it should be pointed out, while Muswell Hill is surely a comedy, it ends with a man alone onstage, weeping, and none of the manifold conflicts resolved. But hey, isn’t life like that?
Torben Betts’s Muswell Hill runs through Dec. 16 at the Barrow Group Mainstage Theatre (312 W. 36th St., 3rd floor). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and 7 p.m. on Sunday. For tickets and information, call (866) 811-4111 or visit barrowgroup.org.