San Francisco Theater Review: ABIGAIL’S PARTY (San Francisco Playhouse)

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by Patricia Schaefer on June 16, 2013

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

THEATER TO THE MAX

What’s to love about the 1970s?  As SF Playhouse’s presentation of Mike Leigh’s acclaimed Abigail’s Room shows, quite a bit.  Director Amy Glazer offers a cornucopia of delights greater than a Nixon-era basket of waxed fruits.  Right from the start, the design team hurls us back to the Me Decade faster than you can say “Have a Nice Day.” Starting with a delicious set design by Bill English, whose lovingly recreated British middle-class environment contains golden brown paneling, diagonal checked wallpaper (sampled from on-line designs, then handmade by staff), orange rug, Brutalism inspired starburst mirror and leather recliners; it’s obvious that English had a field day with the post-Mad Men motif.

The glowing nostalgia of the set makes you long to see a lava lamp among the Danish modern inspired furniture, but I guess that sharing the stage with a lava lamp is a little like sharing with a child – something to avoid unless you want it to Patricia Schaefer's Stage and Cinema review of ABIGAIL'S PARTY at San Francisco Playhouse.steal the show. Instead, a fiber optic lamp with sprays of changing color (dy-no-mite props by Jacqueline Scott) sets the groove for the emergence of a superb ensemble cast, beginning with Susi Damilano as Bev, hostess of the night’s aggressive gathering. She boogies about her living room in preparation for her guests (groovy period choreography by Kimberly Richards) in a revealing Qiana halter maxi dress (far out costumes by Tatjana Genser) to the sounds of “Love to Love You Baby” (cool-o-roonie sound by Brendan Aanes.) It’s a riveting opening that allows Damilano, simply through expert movements and gesture, to suck us in and nail us to the rest of the show.

Patricia Schaefer's Stage and Cinema review of ABIGAIL'S PARTY at San Francisco Playhouse.Bev’s impatiently awaiting her stressed out husband, Laurence’s  (Remi Sandri) return from work, as well as her guests: Neighbors, Angela (Allison Jean White), a nurse; her husky, taciturn husband, Tony (Patrick Kelly Jones); and the shy, middle-aged Sue (played with economical expertise by Julia Brothers) whose daughter, Abigail, 15, is giving a party next door. Brothers’ outfit makes her a dead ringer for the Beverly Hillbillies’ Jane Hathaway.

Abigail’s party, it turns out, isn’t the party we’ve been invited to.  That party occurs entirely off-stage, its raucous delights rendered in snatches of rock music and overheard laughter during the decidedly more bitter and less effervescent adult cocktail party to which these characters are condemned. As hostess, Beverly does her best to aggressively coax false cheer from her trapped and sometimes miserable companions, brought together on the premise that Sue needs a place of refuge to afford the teenagers some privacy. Despite Beverly’s artful seductions – accompanied by plenty of alcohol, pineapple–cheese appetizers, smokes and a bowl of nuts – these adults are socially awkward and frankly miserable.

Patricia Schaefer's Stage and Cinema review of ABIGAIL'S PARTY at San Francisco Playhouse.It’s difficult to call this discomfort comedy; Abigail’s Party is neither satire nor tragedy.  With hilarious authenticity, it makes us laugh because we recognize our self-conscious, sometimes humiliated nature in its characters.  Akin to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this suburban cocktail party as play is a study in displaced feelings:  While Beverly flirts with Tony the hunk, her wounded husband, Laurence, flirts with mousey Sue to counteract his wife’s blatant come on to the younger man in an attempt salvage his dignity.  The night begins with adults behaving naughtily and progresses to adults behaving badly.  And then there is one drink.  And another.

Patricia Schaefer's Stage and Cinema review of ABIGAIL'S PARTY at San Francisco Playhouse.The play builds organically to its apex as a result of ever-deepening character more than plot, a feature of the Kitchen Sink School of realism with which Mike Leigh is associated. Built without a script and developed through improvisation, the play reveals a lack of the structure offered by classic dramaturgy. Instead it is associative, and builds on reputation of phrases – “Let’s face it,” “Let me just give you a little topper,”  “Life is a fight” – that dampens the desperate high-spiritedness initially proffered by Bev to expose the grimness of Leigh’s vision.

Despite its origins in improv, what we’re left with is neither lightweight nor forgettable. Underlying resentments multiply and rage boils over in this layered piece, greater than the sum of its barbed parts.  Yet it is the exceptional acting that truly makes this play work. The ensemble works together seamlessly, with impeccable timing, to play off each other’s foibles.  As hunky Tony, Jones’ Patricia Schaefer's Stage and Cinema review of ABIGAIL'S PARTY at San Francisco Playhouse.modulated grunts are perfectly delivered responses to Damilano’s flagrantly lascivious physical posturing as Bev.  As Laurence, Sandri’s obnoxious fussiness in showing off his Dickens collection and Van Gogh posters is expertly balanced by White’s off-kilter ditzy free spiritedness as Angela.  All the characters — including Laurence, bald and dressed in a brown three-piece suit, and Angela, in a flouncy short hippie dress, look like they have stepped from David Hockney’s frank and mundane acrylic portraits of friends frozen into icons of the 1970s. It’s all you could expect from delightfully funny performances with just the right dose of dark implications. You are left with the uneasy sense of being in their living room, where you might be offered a Bacardi, and asked to join them.

photos by Jessica Palopoli

Abigail’s Party
San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, @ Powell
scheduled to end on July 6, 2013
for tickets, call 415-677-9596 or visit http://www.sfplayhouse.org

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