While the march of progress has happily ensured that Feliciano records, pineapple-and-cheese nibbles, and marabou-trimmed hostess outfits are with us no more, the unsuccessful drinks party is, alas, eternal.
Mike Leigh’s discomfiting 1977 comedy unfolds amid the real-leather sofas and eye-throbbing wallpaper of Beverly and Laurence’s suburban-London living room. At the start of the evening, Beverly (Jennifer Jason Leigh) swans about readying the crisp bowls and Bacardi bottles for the arrival of Angela, a miniskirted registered nurse, and Tony, her dishy, though taciturn, husband. Also invited: neighbor Sue, whose 15-year-old proto-punk daughter Abigail is throwing the titular soiree across the road.
Though a byword in Great Britain—last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival saw three separate productions of it— Abigail’s Party has never enjoyed a professional New York presentation. Its attractions for director Scott Elliott and the cast are conspicuous. Elliott first made a name for his company, the New Group, 10 years ago, with a production of Leigh’s Ecstasy. He’s followed up with other well-received Leigh works, Goose-Pimples and Smelling a Rat. Elliott seems to enjoy the flurry and agitation of these comedies and the opportunities they afford actors. While Elliott hasn’t always excelled at restraining the Hollywood stars he lures to the stage, here he’s matched Jennifer Jason Leigh with an utterly unrestrained character.
On-screen and more recently onstage, Leigh has excelled at playing “nuts and sluts.” Beverly is a bit of both. A former beautician, she’s desperately bored with real estate agent Laurence (Max Baker) and the lower-middle-class life into which he’s installed her. (Laurence is none too contented himself.) Beverly sees this party as a chance to snub Laurence and hold court before her less well-off neighbors. While she imagines herself the perfect hostess, her attempts at hospitality tend toward bullying, prying, lap dancing, force-feeding booze, and perhaps hectoring her husband to death. Though Leigh’s British accent is intensely peculiar, it is consistent, and her piercing exclamations of “Yeah, great,” “Yeah, fantastic,” and “Ooh, lovely” do effectively chill the soul.
As Mike Leigh’s working methods famously involve structured improvisations that eventually result in a script, the play affords generous roles for the other actors—and the ensemble relishes them. Of course, the histrionic excellence doesn’t soften the concern that Mike Leigh might be patronizing, rather terribly, his lower-middle-class creations. Nor does it ease our cringing at Beverly’s idea of a good time, or Angela’s notion of polite conversation. (“That’s funny! So we were getting married the same time you were getting divorced,” she enthuses to Sue.) Indeed, we may find ourselves wishing, as Mike Leigh must intend, that we might escape the backbiting and inanity and make for the embrace of the sticky ciders, overloud records, and underage snogs over at Abigail’s.