Abigail's Party reviewed

Not a lot seems to happen in Abigail's Party, the New Group's adaptation of the 1977 Mike Leigh's play finally being introduced to America at the Acorn Theater, yet by the end of the evening, the lives of all five characters seem to have been forever changed.

Leigh, perhaps best-known for plumbing the depths of lower class England in films like Life Is Sweet, Secrets and Lies, and Vera Drake, has an oddly idiosyncratic work style.  He casts his works first, before creating a mostly improvised plot and characters around them.  Because much of what goes in is largely unscripted, his works on both stage and screen can feel oddly rough and unfinished.  Rest assured, however, that this auteur knows exactly what he is doing.

The main character hosting Party isn't actually Abigail; it's Beverly (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a rather pushy housewife who thinks that keeping her guests' hands and mouths full at all time is the same thing as keeping them happy.  She is far less nurturing when it comes to her husband Laurence (Max Baker), a real estate agent growing ever more agitated by hedonistic wife's needs.  What initially drew the two of them together is a mystery, but it is clear that they are currently only drifting further and further apart.

Beverly's other guests include Angela (Elizabeth Jasicki), her new neighbor, a nervous nellie and a nurse to boot; Angela's stoic husband Tony (Darren Goldstein), and another neighbor, Susan (the wonderful Lisa Emery) the reserved single mother of Abigail, whose raging party has banished her to Beverly's apartment.

Lisa Emery, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Elizabeth Jasicki
In what often feels like a British answer to Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, director Scott Elliott builds caustic tension from the first scene.  There is an unspoken resentment between Laurence and Tony that escalates offstage as the two head toward Abigail's party; though one is never sure exactly what happens, he is aware that something has transpired, and in this way, feels as aloof as the other disconnected partygoers in the cast.  Tony, too, seems ill-matched with Angela, and the husband and wife find myriad ways to retreat from each other during the course of Party.

Leigh's unanswered questions create a distance between audience and character, and also a greater sense of verisimilitude.  His quintet all appear like people one would meet at a party.  One generally never learns the personal history of these other people, but their attitudes are easily readable.  And all five leads are magnificent.  Leigh is shrill as Beverly, and her accent occasionally sounds contrived, but Beverly as a character is deliberately annoying, so it works, and Leigh has no difficulty peeling back the layers to show that Beverly fills herself with spirits and material goods in order to fill an inner void.

Jasicki utilizes her comedic gifts to bring out Angela's more gauche qualities, while Goldstein's performance is a master class in the art of the slow burn (which, during a two-and-a-half hour show, is indeed saying something). Emery's performance is a marked contrast to the two married couples.  Her Susan, a divorcee, seems to exist somewhere on the spectrum between defeat and oblivion, in a far more naturalistic role than that of her counterparts.  She has the pain of not belonging etched into her face.  Baker is perhaps the most revelatory, as a man who takes out all of the resentment he feels for his wife on himself.

Leigh does over-reach with a motif about the sea change in generations, as evidence by the dueling parties: Beverly's gaudy 70s pad against Abigail's unseen punk-fest.  The message seems pretty clear: for Beverly and motley crew, the party's over.  But this message is unnecessary.  Their world might be changing around them, but they never played an important enough role in it in the first place.

Here's hoping Abigail learns a lesson from them.

Further Reading on M&C

Mike Leigh Biography - - Mike Leigh Movies -