nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 26, 2005
Mike Leigh’s 1977 dramedy, Abigail’s Party—now receiving its long overdue New York premiere, courtesy of The New Group—is an incisive look at British middle class unrest. It studies a group of tenuously connected adults at a cocktail party—where the dynamic runs the gamut from good-natured banter to outright scorn—with subtle precision, turning the proceedings into a sociological Petri dish. Masterfully directed by Scott Elliott and led by an excellent cast (which is anchored by a frighteningly good turn from Jennifer Jason Leigh as the party's hostess), Abigail’s Party cuts right to the heart of the hostility bubbling under the surface of drunken small talk.
Set in late 1970s London, the play focuses on a cocktail party being thrown by Beverly, a brash and domineering housewife, and her hen-pecked husband, Laurence. The guests are their neighbors: Angela, a giggly and cheerful nurse, and her strong-but-silent bruiser of a husband, Tony; and Susan, a quiet and polite divorcee. Susan has been exiled from her own flat for the night—by her teenage daughter, Abigail, who’s having some friends over for a party of her own. Beverly’s party goes well for a while: strained but cordial niceties flow smoothly enough. But soon the noise from Abigail’s party (which has turned out to be larger than Susan anticipated) starts coming through the living room wall. Then everyone at Bev’s has one gin and tonic too many, and the gloves come off. Pent-up resentments are unleashed, and lead to an unsettling conclusion.
Leigh’s writing process has been well-publicized over the years—casting a project first and then collectively creating it with the actors through extensive improvisations. The end result usually turns out looking and feeling truly authentic—as if you’re spying on someone’s everyday life. Abigail’s Party possesses this fly-on-the-wall quality. The play trades plot for character study and occurs in real time, so the main attraction for the viewer is in watching Leigh’s characters behave and interact with each other. And it shares some common ground with the work of Harold Pinter in that things that are left unsaid reveal as much as those that are spoken; what happens offstage colors the action as much as what happens on stage. At one point, Laurence and Tony leave to check up on Abigail and her friends. When they return, it is clear that something has transpired between them—something possibly confrontational—but we never learn what it is: they keep it to themselves. But their thinly-veiled contempt for each other, evident in their behavior, is all we need to know. Similarly, Angela aggravates Tony to no end—he’s embarrassed or possibly disgusted by her—but we don’t know why. It is left to us to figure that—and many other aspects of Abigail’s Party—out.
Leigh also has bigger things on his mind, namely the passing of the proverbial torch from one generation to the next. Abigail’s next-door party hovers oppressively over the onstage proceedings. When the Sex Pistols start blaring through the wall it’s the equivalent of a rallying cry from Britain’s punk rock youth. Beverly’s generation—the older of the two, exemplifying 1970s “Me” Generation narcissism—begins slipping into irrelevance in that moment, as the audience recognizes that the coming punk movement will be the next one to start a cultural revolution and change the world. By the time Abigail’s Party reaches its disturbing conclusion, the social dominance of Beverly’s generation is literally dead.
It also sounds like there’s a lot more fun being had at Abigail’s party than at Beverly’s, where subtle passive-aggressiveness builds into not-so-subtle humiliation. Beverly is the party host from Hell, the kind of person whose house you would never want to go to. She has a lot to prove and wants to be thought of as posh and sophisticated, but she’s too selfish and insensitive to ever be hostess-with-the-mostest. Her compulsion to refill everyone’s drink whenever she runs dry herself (whether they want one or not) smacks of trying to make her guests adhere to her idea of what a party should be like. Their constant refusal of hors d’oeuvres or a cigarette is viewed by her as a personal affront. And her advice to Angela about which shade of lipstick she should use is a prime example of slow burn degradation. When Beverly attempts to seduce Tony in Act II (by dancing alluringly to Jose Feliciano’s version of “Light My Fire," much to everyone’s discomfort), she throws out all sense of social decorum. “We’re not here to hold conversations,” she declares at one point, “we’re here to enjoy ourselves!” Obviously, her idea of what that constitutes is skewed.
Director Elliott builds tension through inertia: even as the party becomes more demoralizing, the characters do nothing. They simply put on their best faces and suck it up (politeness is the key for everyone except Beverly). By keeping the actors mostly anchored to their seats, much like a real party, Elliott creates a growing sense of claustrophobia (there’s nowhere to run except out the door, and the guests are much too nice for that) and unease, making the audience feel not only like they are at the party themselves, but also complicit in letting Beverly get away with her demeaning little jibes (more than once I found myself looking away in shock and disbelief at some action or words of hers—that’s how uncomfortable it gets). Much like slowing down on the highway to view the aftermath of a car crash, Elliott’s direction of Abigail’s Party makes us wish we could do something to help and simultaneously glad that it’s them instead of us.
Abigail’s Party also moves at the perfect tempo. The play occurs in real time, and sails along with all the familiar peaks and valleys of superficial party repartee. Much of the credit for this must go to the exceptional cast, all of whom operate with great fluidity and teamwork. Max Baker gives a wonderful, heartbreaking performance as the sensitive Laurence. The ever-reliable Lisa Emery gives the placating Susan a soulful undercurrent; her eyes and behavior reveal a full inner life even if her words do not. Darren Goldstein gives Tony the proper blend of stoic menace, and Elizabeth Jasicki is likeably daffy as Angela. And, Jennifer Jason Leigh nails Beverly’s uncouth brand of self-centeredness perfectly.
Abigail’s Party rewards theatergoers with a generous helping of great acting and great storytelling. And a telling look at a party you’ll be glad you weren’t invited to.