Henry David Thoreau observed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” While it may seem like pure schadenfreude, never before has such distress been more painfully entertaining than it is in The Barrow Group and Pond Theater Company’s impeccable staging of Mike Leigh’s classic play Abigail’s Party. Leigh’s timeless examination of class struggle is well known in the U.K. to the extent that the live 1977 theater version was preserved for television audiences and ranks as one of the 100 Greatest British Television Programs. For fans of classic British sitcoms, it might be argued that Abigail’s Party served as inspiration for Keeping Up Appearances, an early nineties television comedy that skewered both the middle and upper classes.
Leigh’s two act drama takes place in the home of Laurence (John Pirkis) and Beverly (Sarah Street), a well-to-do couple who have invited their new neighbors, Angela (Lily Dorment) and Tony (Nick Hetherington) over for a cocktail party. Laurence is a successful, if not constantly stressed real estate agent whose wife Beverly is the stereotypical “lady who lunches.” In contrast, Angela is a meek nurse whose husband Tony works as a computer operator. Occupationally, their careers are considered déclassé in the eyes of their hosts and the passive aggressive comments hurled towards them are fast and furious. While discussing Angela’s lipstick with Beverly, she observes that “You’re wearing a very pretty dress. Now, you see that pink ribbon down the front? If you’d have chosen, Ang, a color slightly nearer that pink, I think it would have blended more with your skin tones; d’you know what I mean?” Further conversation about cars, differences between old Tudor and Mock Tudor homes, and leather bound Shakespeare books abound between copious amounts of cigarettes and alcohol in a night that could well be subtitled “Albee meets Ab Fab”.
Shortly after the evening unfolds, fellow neighbor Susan (Colleen Clinton) arrives. Her teenage daughter, Abigail, is throwing a birthday party for herself in their home and has asked mum to leave. Susan, who resembles a forlorn, humorless librarian, is less than thrilled to mingle with this bunch. As a divorcee, life has not been kind to her and it’s obvious that this cocktail party won’t change this trajectory.
Leigh is mostly familiar to US audiences as a screen-writer. His films Topsy-Turvy, Happy Go-Lucky, Vera Drake, and Another Year (among others) have all achieved Oscar notoriety with either nominations or awards. Whatever the medium, it is no surprise that his work is consistently praised. He is a master at capturing the awkwardness and pain of human interaction and longing. Furthermore, he paints portraits that are not exclusive to specific regions, encouraging a universal relatability. Although the play was apparently a reaction to the middle class uprising in 1970s Britain, it can well be placed in a different decade and geographic region and still have the same profound resonance. One need not look much further than the results of our United States election to notice the socio-economic fractures in our society. Perhaps the sting doesn’t feel quite as painful however, when served against the backdrop of the swinging seventies, posh accents, Donna Summer, and Jose Feliciano?
Director Lee Brock could not have assembled a finer cast. Each of these roles is an actor’s dream and the entire cast sink their teeth into this material like a decadent desert. Every line and glance among this ensemble is beautifully nuanced and they are all in perfect harmony with the text and one another. Edward T. Morris’ elaborate set perfectly evokes affluence and is so well detailed that even the alcohol labels are vintage.
It should be noted that The Pond Theater Company is “the new kid in town”. Abigail’s Party marks the inaugural production of this troupe that is dedicated to showcasing the work of UK playwrights whose works may be otherwise unfamiliar to US audiences. They have undeniably made an impressive debut and appear to be both well organized and well-funded. One can only hope they don’t suffer the “M. Night Shyamalan” effect where everything after their first project doesn’t live up to expectations of the “freshman homerun”. New York is simultaneously a welcoming and tough town for theatre but as long as they sustain their quality, it’s a safe bet to assume that The Pond will be around for years to come.
As holiday season approaches, there will be plenty of soirees to attend. I can promise you now that none of them will be nearly as enjoyable as a night at Abigail’s Party.
Abigail’s Party runs through December 3rd @ 312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th. For tickets: https://www.barrowgroup.org/