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Muswell Hill

Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 21, 2017

Richard Hollis and Colleen Clinton
Photo by Todd Cerveris

Even before the first guest has arrived and the monkfish stew is ready to be served, the audience watching Muswell Hill, Torbin Betts's 2012 British play receiving its New York premiere, can be pretty sure Jess and Mat's looming dinner party will be a disaster. After all, the ample supply of wine on the kitchen counter portends an evening of uncomfortable truth telling and bitter arguments. Oh, and just as the door buzzer sounds, Mat informs his wife that he knows about her office affair. As Margo Channing would say, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night."

Cocktail and dinner parties provide the settings for some of the theatre's fiercest character warfare and political skirmishes. Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party, and Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced are just a few examples in the get-the-guest genre, and the uncomfortable pleasures one derives have to do with watching social niceties devolve into brutal stage combat. Muswell Hill, which is presented jointly by the Barrow Group Theatre and the Pond Theatre companies, does not offer the same level of sardonic bite or trenchant social commentary as the aforementioned plays, but there are plenty of drunken confrontations and shocking (if at times rather contrived) revelations to keep a party voyeur entertained.

The play's title refers to the posh London suburb where Jess and Mat live quite comfortably and with all of the modern amenities. (Edward T. Morris's gleaming kitchen set with marble countertops, state-of-the-art appliances, and blonde wood floors provokes immediate apartment-envy.) Jess (in a suitably understated and melancholic performance by Colleen Clinton) works for a prominent accounting firm and makes enough to support her husband Mat (Jason Alan Carvell), a determined, but unsuccessful novelist. The other characters and party guests include Karen (Lily Dorment), Jess's recently widowed and off-and-on-again vegetarian friend; Simon (played with exquisite drollness by Richard Hollis), Mat's cynical and eternally despondent university chum; Annie (a very funny Sarah Street), Jess's vulnerable and loopy sister; and Tony (John Pirkis), a smarmy and pompous stage director who is only waveringly committed to Annie.

As with most parties, the guests tend to congregate and retreat to the kitchen, and this allows for eruptions of long-simmering conflicts and clandestine flirtations. In the course of the evening longtime and fledgling relationships will be tried and tested, and Betts has created a group of appropriately mean-spirited characters to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, a few of the scenes go on too long, and the plot often spins on conveniently engineered overheard conversations. Clearly, though, the playwright has more on his mind than melodramatic interpersonal crises.

The play's central purpose is to expose the hypocrisy of the presumably charitable liberal upper-middle class. As the guests partake of an avocado and prawn appetizer followed by monkfish stew, they often refer to the news of the Haitian earthquake (the play is set in 2010). The rising body count is periodically reported as if it were a cricket score. Obviously, these people are desperately out of touch with the world even though they long to be a part of it. In fact, the characters all strive to be extraordinary individuals as artists, teachers, health care providers, and corporate mentors. Their pursuits, however, are not directed toward the good of society but for their own personal gratification and moral superiority. They cannot, as one character says, admit that they are simply ordinary, everyday people, and they are miserable as a result.

The sense of elitist self-importance often yields very comical consequences. A particularly funny moment occurs when Simon, the wannabe teacher, and Tony, the theatre director, preen and engage in masculine one-upmanship in order to impress Karen. They do not astound with their physical strength or knowledge of sports, for example. Instead, they show off their ability to correctly quote from Andrew Marvell's seventeenth-century poem, "To His Coy Mistress." (As a huge admirer of this poem, I was duly impressed.)

The play was both written before and takes place prior to the Trump and Brexit era, and the discussions are at times simultaneously eerily prescient and comparatively innocent. Characters complain, for instance, about the unreliable news media (immediately calling to mind the "fake news" phenomenon), and when Barack Obama's name was mentioned, the laughter of the audience stemmed from feelings of nostalgia.

Director Shannon Patterson does a generally good job balancing the play's twists and turns with the larger social themes. The cast is overall quite strong, and the actors push the characters to the brink of caricature without going over even when the play becomes a bit too farcical in the second act. The space, however, poses some difficulty for both the audience and performers. The stage is configured as a long and narrow playing area with the audience on three sides. This causes some awkwardness in blocking and makes some of the dialogue difficult to hear. (The man in front of me needed frequent clarification from his wife.)

As with all dinner parties, the play concludes with the hosts ritualistically washing the dishes and organizing the kitchen. Muswell Hill reminds us that disrupted lives, relationships, and social orders are seldom so easily tidied up and put back in order.

Muswell Hill
Through December 16
The Barrow Group Mainstage Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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