Sure, we've seen '70s flashbacks on stage before. Still, this one is wicked. Walled off behind a pair of Jackie O. sunglasses, helmeted in a blow-dried, feather-backed tribute to Farrah Fawcett-Majors, garbed in a filmy, opal cocktail dress an untold number of polyesters gave their lives for, actor Nicole Farmer stares blankly at her audience. Then her character, Beverly, downs three shots of Jack black, neat, and places the needle on the turntable. A monotonous thump, thump, thump begins, before the voice of Donna Summer groans--from 31 years ago--Oh, love to love you, baby.... Are any further omens really needed that Abigail's Party is going to end, if not in tears, in rueful laughter?
Mike Leigh's 1977 British comedy was revived at home in 2002 before a noted Off-Broadway production gave the work its New York premiere in 2005. There's an undeniable time capsule element to the version playing now at Common Ground Theatre, underlined by Derrick Ivey's set of black leatherette furniture and white shag carpeting, set off by an avocado and crème wallpaper almost matching Farmer's dress.
But Al Singer's telling off-stage sound montage gets at the main gift this comedy has to offer contemporary audiences: a context for the punk movement in Britain during the late '70s, and a humorous essayon the social structures that made it a necessity.
There are two parties going on throughout this play; Beverly's is the only one we actually see. But in between the disco, Jose Feliciano and easy-listening torch songs from her stereo, we hear a different mix off-stage: The not-so-distant refrains of "London Calling" by the Clash and the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" clue us in to the nature of the unseen Abigail's birthday party next door--and the main reason her mom, Susan, is at Beverly's party instead.
We'd rather be at Abigail's. But since we're stuck at Beverly's, we watch with relish mixed with dread as the party's not-so-hidden agendas blossom through the ample application of gin. Beverly turns out to be more inquisitor than hostess, plying everyone with truth serum and tonic before grilling them about their jobs, their pasts and their sexual inclinations.
After reinforcing the lower caste of the new neighbors, Angela and Tony, Bev makes increasingly obvious passes at Angela's husband while her own husband, the miserable Lawrence, is in the room. Susan's secrets, such as they are, are cast about the room, while Angela and Beverly blithely ratchet up her private fears about what's transpiring at her daughter's fete next door. As each uncomfortable truth is revealed, the only available countermove involves more booze. Recriminations--and gastric revolt--await.
Director Tom Marriott gleefully serves up this alcoholic banquet, abetted by a quintet of gifted actors. Farmer is pitch-perfect as a sadistic social director with an unerring sense for the jugular, while Mark Jeffrey Miller gives what is likely his most hypertensive performance to date as the hapless, twisted Lawrence. Gigi Delizza embodies cockney obliviousness as the mousy little Angela, while Jeff Alguire brings an appropriate, obtuse swagger to her past-his-prime husband, Tony.
In this constellation, Susan seems to stand in for the audience, and actor Lenore Field ably fills that role. Though she reacts with increasing dismay to the tasteless behavior about her, she can't put down the liquor glass, or leave this conflagration to face the one next door.
Both she and the rest ask at various points, What's with these kids these days? The answer surrounds them. None of them sees, though we do. But before we laugh too hard at this quintet, let's make a quick comparison between these conversations and the chats at our last parties. Sure, bad hair comes and goes. But do consumerism, class consciousness, sexual opportunism and corruption ever go out of style?
Meanwhile, a world--and a century--away, Dolly Levi, the character who would ultimately be immortalized in the musical Hello, Dolly!, employs similar machinations to more noble ends in Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, now showing at Triad Stage. On Howard C. Jones' delightful, two-story Eastlake Victorian set, Kirtan Coan holds court in the title role, happily ruining the unromantic schemes of a properly frumpy Edwin C. Owens as miser Horace Vandergelder. Since Horace knows nothing about love--young or old--Dolly will just have to educate him.
But why do naifs Barnaby Tucker (Jesse Presler) and Cornelius Hackl (Bradley Brown) have more personality on stage than Lindy Flowers' crybaby of an Ermengarde or Joshua Purvis' foppish Ambrose Kemper? Perhaps the answer lies with the gentlemen's foils: a memorable turn by Elizabeth Meadows Rouse as pragmatic party girl Irene Molloy and Patti Walker's brief but funny turn as Irene's assistant, Minnie.
A slam segue awaits patrons to the late-night showing of Morticians in Love, in the studio theater on Triad Stage's second floor. The title alone implies an outré soap opera--The Rocky Horror Picture Show meets The Young and the Restless. This addled production does not disappoint.
Gretchen Ferris brings an appropriately glassy-eyed--indeed, nearly lifelike--nuance to Lydia, the sexually frustrated undertaker and proprietor of Eternal Acres, while Paige Berry animates her pathologically faithful servant, Limer. But it wouldn't be a triangle--even with assorted necrophilic lust objects lying around--without David Harrell's St. John, a competing mortician who is hired on after his funeral home mysteriously burns down. He's clammy, pale, baleful and unctuous--all those things that are just so hot to lonely undertakers of the fairer sex.
Before you know it, St. John and Limer are in deadly--but amusing--competition for Lydia's attentions, while an unseen organist makes dirges out of Cyndi Lauper and Elton John hits. Unexpected twists occur before the end threatens to permanently change our interpretation of the sappy early '80s song "Endless Love."
Is this one-act worth the drive all by itself? Not really. And it balances with the earlier show of the evening, in Bob Dylan's words, like a mattress on a bottle of wine. If you're in the neighborhood, see them both--but on different nights, if possible.
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Party Girl Productions
Common Ground Theatre
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|Morticians in Love|
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E-mail Byron at firstname.lastname@example.org.