New York City Theater
Although often compared with "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" for its cocktail soiree, bickering couples, would-be seduction, booze, and sado-masochistic arguments, "Abigail’s Party" can stand on its own. Mike Leigh’s 1977 stark and searing black-comedy look at British culture and class now at the Acorn Theatre is strikingly directed by Scott Elliott, who makes two hours’ talk as riveting as a good melodrama.
The premise is a neighborly get-together thrown by vulgar, selfish, salacious Beverly. Her mousy, anxious, whipped husband Laurence, a real estate agent, pretends that their life is more akin to the Van Gogh print in the living-room than the pornographic painting that hangs in their bedroom.
The games Beverly plays are fueled by enough liquor to float the Queen Mary. The guests – or victims – are the naïve Angela, her studly, taciturn husband Tony, and reticent Susan. Present because her 15-year-old daughter, Abigail, is giving a nearby party to which she is pointedly not invited, Susan has one ear cocked on the raucous offstage laughter and music. As Beverly’s guests become more intoxicated (one throws up in the loo), their natures and relationships are dissected, their lives ripped open to reveal chasms of disgust and frustration.
As Beverly, with her Valley Girl voice, cascading hair, and tight gown, Jennifer Jason Leigh is the embodiment of the cheap femme fatale. But her smashing performance goes beyond physicality into something both funny and terrifying. Sauntering about Derek McLane's plush set, she is the hostess from hell.
Elizabeth Jasicki, amusingly costumed by Eric Becker to look like a pathetic Barbie doll, is wonderfully ditsy as Angela. Max Baker, precisely delineating Laurence's growing anxiety, makes the audience fear for the character's sanity. Darren Goldstein is a simmering volcano as Tony, while Lisa Emery gives another of her memorable characterizations as the tweedy, uncomfortable Susan.
This is fine work all around. "Abigail's Party" is bound to be one of the season's highlights.
-- David A. Rosenberg
December 2, 2005