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Abigail's Party

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Is class exclusively a concern of the classless? Maybe, at least judging by the deceptively fragile characters in Abigail's Party, Mike Leigh's invigorating poison-toothed 70s satire that The New Group is bringing to glorious, disjointed life at the Acorn Theatre. But don't push too hard - the play might collapse under the modest weight of even that much interpretation, and the people Leigh documents would never believe you anyway.

They're too busy discussing nothing - endlessly - to realize that they're actually waging ancient battles of economic and gender dominance in disquietingly modern ways. Director Scott Elliott and his company, led by an unglamorously unrecognizable Jennifer Jason Leigh, mine the play for all the humor, much of the insight, and a fair amount of kitschy English appeal it can offer. But for them it's not a presentation of life, it's just life, with no slumming - or worse, winking - in sight.

That would be all too easy in an evening that derives many laughs from one (or five) too many gin and tonics, an ill-timed leg cramp, and an ungodly (and ungainly) party snack concocted from cheese and pineapple. But the concerns of everyone onstage - and, judging from the production's hair-slicing sharpness, backstage as well - are intensely, inwardly focused. For the first time this season, you feel the exhilarating, voyeuristic rush that accompanies not watching a play but secretly viewing a group of ordinary people behind a partially collapsed wall.

At the top of the food chain in this slowly crumpling ecosystem is Beverly (Leigh), the hostess who thinks nothing of prancing about in a tight-fitting blue dress and flaunting her alcohol, hors d'oeuvres, and a gadgety cigarette dispenser. She's also quite willing to step on her dour divorcee guest Susan (Lisa Emery), the less-fortunate, less-educated, working-class couple Tony and Angela (Darren Goldstein and Elizabeth Jasicki), and especially her husband Laurence (Max Baker), a personal servant and sounding board in all but official title.

Yes, it's her party and she'll sigh if she wants to, especially when things don't go as she'd prefer them to, though with the right wine or the right whine she can usually turn anything to her advantage. Her language is built almost entirely on gossipy chit-chat, sniping and snippy, and generally perfectly timed depending on who is in or out of the room at any given moment. Laurence, if less overt, times his entrances, exits, and utterances similarly: Both are masters of foisting on others what they least want but can't possibly refuse. This leads to confusion, rivalries, and of course liquor-induced vomiting. (Let's assume that music and dancing, among the most deadly of cocktail-party weapons, are a given.)

But Leigh's portrayal of decadent self-involvement and extra-marital immolation make this all seem disquietingly natural, as though destroying lives is part of the routine she carries out each day before breakfast. Hers is a performance steeped in tobacco and cheap booze, and yet inescapably human in its all-consuming, destructive need. A monster capable of French kissing you even as she gnaws off your head, she's sexy - in her way - with a flowingly clingy gown (designed by Eric Becker) that leaves tantalizingly little to the imagination. But it can't camouflage the inherent ugliness of its wearer, or her bossy, backhanded opinions about everything and everyone.

If no one else makes a comparable impression - why would Beverly let them? - they smolder and smoke no less effectively. Jasicki occasionally grates as an overly ditzy, inert nurse (though she does deliver a superbly funny drunk scene), but Emery's cracked businesslike mien provides some joltingly effective contrast to Leigh's serpentine flamboyance. And Goldstein and Baker score with their vivid portrayals of working stiffs on opposite ends of the social spectrum.

Derek McLane's haggardly homey set provides a sullenly sunny backdrop for the action, which Elliott orchestrates with a wise eye toward the unexpected; this keeps the surprises (of which there are a few) fresh and the laughs (of which there are many) even fresher. Yes, one could quibble with the pacing near the end of the first act, when Leigh's otherwise tight writing (inspired from improvisation with his original 1977 London company) slackens enough to allow the thin threads of story to tangle a bit too much. And the ending, if justified, is more of a cessation than a conclusion.

But even that feels only momentarily wrong. Two hours with these people, who dismiss one adolescent's party (Abigail is Susan's daughter) by playing their own equally childish games, is more than enough. Though that, too, presents a problem: The two Leighs, Elliott, and the rest of the company have made this too compelling a crew to exorcise from your mind merely by leaving the theater; they'll haunt you for a while. If only more plays inspired post-show experiences so wonderfully unbearable.

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Abigail's Party
Through January 7
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with one intermission
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral