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Party Like It’s 1977

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An early Mike Leigh comedy of manners boasts about its age

“Abigail’s Party” opens with a sultry blonde slinking around her tan and orange 1970s abode, compulsively arranging hors d’oeuvres for company soon to arrive. What first appears to be a powder blue, fluff-trimmed robe is actually a party dress. It matches her eye shadow.

The hostess plunks Donna Summers’ “Love to Love You Baby” on the turntable, fixes herself a cocktail, and puffs on a cigarette. She tests out the pulsating fiber-light that emanates a festive spray of glowing pinpoints, hoping it will set the mood.

But wait—this isn’t the Abigail of the play’s title. Turns out her name is Beverly, and only later do we learn that Abigail is a neighbor’s 15-year old punk-rocker daughter who’s throwing a bash down the block. Kids, these days.

When first staged in 1977 by Britain’s Mike Leigh, who is better known stateside for creating films—“Vera Drake,” “Topsy-Turvy,” “Secrets and Lies”—than for his plays, the work was seen as a biting satire dissecting middle-class social mores.

Does this party have any life in it today?

As shaped by Scott Elliott, artistic director of the New Group, the answer is a jolly good “yes,” albeit not entirely the way Leigh originally had in mind. This is the latest of four Leigh plays given a New York premiere by the perspicacious Off-Broadway theater company.

Akin to his deeply introspective films, “Abigail’s Party” is remarkable more for its indelible characters than for their deeds, more for its stilted pauses than for its plot.

The blowsy Beverly (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her beleaguered husband, Laurence (Max Baker), have invited their reticent new neighbors for drinks and snacks. There’s ditzy Angela (Elizabeth Jasicki), a nurse, and her red-haired husband of three years, Tony (Darren Goldstein), a computer analyst who prefers one-word grunts to conversation. They’ve also invited Susan (Lisa Emery), a divorcee seeking refuge from her daughter Abigail’s escalating event. Howls of The Sex Pistols and other headbanger bands boom menacingly in the distance.

What a fascinatingly dreadful little party this is! The highlight of the chit chat, in the first act, anyway, is whether or not to serve olives along with the pineapple cheese wheel.

Later, after lubrication from several Bacardis with lemon and ice, things get a tad more interesting. The men, at Beverly’s insistence, pop over next door to check on the teens, and return unhinged. Laurence, lamenting over the decay of civilization, with its wife-swapping and general permissiveness, sparks a sharp debate over José Feliciano versus Bach.

The plucky ensemble is more than up to the task, especially Goldstein as Tony, whose complexion turns a hot crimson nearly matching his beard, telegraphing his rage when words fail him. Jennifer Jason Leigh—no relation to the playwright—delights as the sloshed, eager-to-please hostess. “Imagine making love to this. Knooow what I mean?” she teases the sullen Tony, as she performs a kind of lap dance to the strains of “Light My Fire.”

We hope the seemingly innocuous gathering of these endearing wretches veers into Albee-like “Virginia Woolf” territory, and it does, as the mundane hardens into mendacity before our very eyes. Unfortunately, the farcical spin of their gyrations undercuts the emotional impact, and guffaws overpower grief all too quickly.

No doubt when the play was first staged, Laurence’s disdain for punk rockers and José Feliciano—longing for a simpler time—was a fresh take on a time-tested theme as old as the Shakespeare volumes that he proudly displays on a shelf. For today’s audiences, however, it smacks of an underwhelming quaintness in an age of Internet porn-addicted teens and meth-addled soccer moms.

With its fabulous period set, exquisitely rendered by Derek McLane (“Little Women”), “Abigail’s Party” seems as concerned about nostalgia for 1970s kitsch as for wholesome traditions.

It’s interesting to note that promotional materials for the play feature Beverly, with her feathered tresses, costume jewelry, and pasty makeup, looking just like Madonna in her current Abba-sampled number one video, “Hung Up.” And just days ago, it was announced that The Sex Pistols would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The New Group’s knack for retro chic trendspotting is impressive, but doesn’t quite compensate for the diminished emotional heft brought on by the passage of time.

On the plus side, Elliott wisely chose to keep the British setting, accents and idioms intact, to stay true to the material. Such authenticity also adds an irresistible sheen of charm for us Americans.

Despite absorbing stretches, uncanny performances, and seductive set design, however, we can’t help but wonder if we might not “enjoy ourselves,” as Beverly puts it, a good deal more at Abigail’s party raging next door. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what the crafty playwright intended all along.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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