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Lisa Emery, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Elizabeth Jasicki
in Abigail's Party
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The process by which Mike Leigh writes -- or one might more accurately say compiles -- his plays and films is mysterious. And he wants it that way. In discussing the improvisational process he uses, in which only the actors involved get to participate, Leigh recently said: "Every single play and film I have ever done is made in the same way. Only by seeing the play can I actually write it. I don't like to talk about it in too much detail. It's very complex, and on the whole it's no one's business."

I beg to differ. It's also the business of audiences who pay to see the results. Although patrons don't need be shown every nut and bolt of the creation strategy, it's certainly our right, after shelling out today's ticket prices, to feel we're watching something that has at least been structured with complete understanding of craft. And I'm not convinced that's always the case with Leigh. Sometimes he and his actor/collaborators strike a tap root --as with Secrets and Lies (which could be the title of almost every play or film ever devised) and Vera Drake and Ecstasy -- and sometimes he and his assembled team hit a less rich source.

For an example of the latter, take Abigail's Party, which Leigh composed in 1977 to fill a sudden hole in London's Hampstead Theatre season. Maybe that explains why there's a stopgap feeling about Abigail's Party. That quality doesn't bother some people who've been exposed to it; the play found a soft spot in the hearts of the English population when a television version starring Alison Steadman (Leigh's then-wife) aired. But how American playgoers will respond to the work's extremely well-produced New York premiere, presented by the New Group and directed by Scott Elliott, could be a different matter.

Leigh's two-act work takes place in "real time" in a flat inhabited by self-satisfied beautician Beverly (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her harried real estate agent husband Laurence (Max Baker) (The busy Derek McLane did the terrific set, which includes two very funny wallpapers, an upstage kitchen that looks a bit of all right, and a prominently displayed diode-light sculpture that screams "1970s"). For reasons that are never made clear, the couple are entertaining brainless registered nurse Angela (Elizabeth Jasicki) and her taciturn, prone-to-violence mate Tony (Darren Goldstein), as well as mousy neighbor Susan (Lisa Emery). What happens once everyone is assembled is question that a ticket buyer has every right to ask. The answer is: Not a helluva lot most of the time. Beverly forces everyone to eat, drink, and listen to the music she favors (Jose Feliciano and Elvis Presley). Meanwhile, Laurence becomes frustrated, Angela gets knickers-baring drunk, Tony remains monosyllabic, and nervous-stomach Susan stays rather than return to her flat; in part because conventional manners have been drilled into her, and because she's avoiding her unseen daughter Abigail's party -- the slightly alarming sounds from which seep into the Beverly and Laurence habitat.

With a certain amount of consistency, the five characters carry on in a manner simultaneously shocking and hilarious. As they do, they illustrate what some have called a devastating portrait of middle-class Britain. More immediately, they show the effects of unexamined marriages on those involved. The sexual content has drained from the Beverly-Laurence pairing so much so that she uses Feliciano's rendition of The Doors' megahit "Light My Fire" as an attempt to light guest Tony's fire. Angela, becoming tipsier and tipsier, revels in her inebriated state of denial, while Tony silently seethes. Divorced Susan seems to harbor disappointments she never gets around to expressing. As the lack of plot continues apace -- Beverly keeps insisting her guests have another drink, another cigarette from a pop-up dispenser, another pineapple-cheese savory -- Leigh ultimately comes along with a dramatic turn of events that won't be revealed here.

None of the deficiencies that flaw Abigail's Party are the fault of director Elliott, whose collaboration with this quintet of fine actors is all thumbs-up. Jennifer Jason Leigh -- wearing a fuzz-trimmed powder-blue robe Eric Becker discovered in some fabulous trove -- makes Beverly a housing-development monster. She's frequently required to say "actually" and turns it into a chilling "ack-chully." Repeating using names when addressing Angela ("Ange") and Sue, she extracts laughs from the sheer utterances. And her "Light My Fire" blandishments are worth the admission price.

Baker, with hair combed forward over a receding hairline, modulates Laurence's frustration subtly. Jasicki maximizes her opportunities by attaching rightly irritating giggles to almost everything she says. Goldstein's brooding Tony is exactly calibrated. Emery, almost unrecognizable in a wig that looks as if something straight-haired died up there, keeps Susan's secrets with an impressive amount of muted anguish.

Not long before the final black-out, Laurence pulls a volume of Shakespeare's plays from a shelf and says, "Part of our heritage." Then, after riffling pages for a few seconds, he adds, "Of course, it's not something you can actually read." Perhaps a quick re-reading by Leigh of this work would have reminded him that behavior -- no matter how shrewdly scrutinized by actors for whom scrutinizing behavior is part of the job -- does not a full-bodied play make.

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