How was your experience?
Abigail’s Party, by Mike Leigh, is about a group of people at a cocktail party, none of whom actually want to be there, except for Beverly, the hostess who incessantly refills drinks and plays records in a determined attempt to enjoy herself. What makes the play brilliant is the juxtaposition of the party we are seeing with the teenage party going on off-stage, Abigail’s party, which serves as a cruel mirror to the desperate and disconnected view of humanity we see before us. Everyone in the play has resigned themselves, or has attempted to resign themselves, to whatever unhappy lot in life they have chosen. Their youth behind them, they’ve compromised their hopes and dreams, leaving nothing but the empty social rituals and the desire to pull an alcoholic veil over their dreary reality. In their imaginations, the party next door has everything they are lacking: youth, freedom from responsibility, sexual liberation. Unable to cope with the unendurable banality of their lives, their spouses, or even the immediate social situation, the guests retreat into a form of repression, clinging to any shred of dignity they can manage. This SF Playhouse production serves the play to an almost ideal degree. The direction is flawless, in the sense that it is unnoticeable. Everything that happens in the play appears to be a natural, organic outgrowth of the situation. There is a natural sense of pacing, without ever becoming forced. I would imagine this would be a very difficult play to stage, as virtually nothing of the themes I’ve just mentioned are discussed directly in the dialogue. There is much repetition, pouring of drinks, etc., and Amy Glazer manages to give the play a sense of momentum without ever allowing it to become stagnant for a moment. There is much humor in the play, but it is the kind of humor that comes almost entirely out of the dynamic and subtext between the characters, not from lines that are terribly funny in themselves. In lesser hands, a play like this could be deadly. Amy Glazer also gives the feeling of a single vision driving the action and characters, with the entire cast on the same page, all inhabiting the same world, which is something only rarely seen onstage. In addition, the cast never resorts to caricature to carry the humor, which is another compliment to the direction. I have seen the BBC version and read the play and it is something that Mike Leigh himself sometimes pushes to the limits in his actor’s performances. But this production is more straightforward; rather than focusing on eccentric character traits, it simply follows their actions to their logical and usually absurd and tragic results. In the BBC version, Alison Steadman give a brilliant comic performance, but here, Susi Damilano chooses to stick closely to the through-line, practically forcing everyone else to conform to her determination to have a good time, while subtly antagonizing them. Her strong performance gives the play its center for all the other characters to revolve around. Allison White also stands out as Angie in a spot-on performance, with perfect timing, that I can’t imagine being improved upon. The absence of meaning and substance in our culture, compensated for by an inversely high fixation on drinking, empty social encounters, sporting events and technology, make this play sadly more relevant here and now than it might have even been in England thirty-five years ago. This is a rare event in the theater, a play that both fully entertains at the same time addressing the true anxieties and hypocrisies of our time.