Britain’s Mike Leigh is an acknowledged master of the theater of the uncomfortable, with characters often under a microscope in unfortunate moments. His focus isn’t necessarily judgmental, but neither is it flattering. “Abigail’s Party,” developed in collaboration with a group of actors he was working with in 1977, is a look at how the conflicts underlying a couple of marriages come out into the open during a small party. The new production of the play at the Odyssey Theater Ensemble is well-acted and very funny, with a couple of excellent performances, but the end of the piece feels artificial and keeps it from having quite the resonance it might have.
Beverly (Nikki Glick) is having a small get-together at her home, and she is rather anxious that everything be right. Her realtor husband Laurence (Darren Richardson), however, has last-minute business meetings to conduct, which makes her irritable. Young couple Angela (Phoebe James) and Tony (Jonathan LaPaglia) arrive first, and copious amounts of alcohol get the party rolling. By the time neighbor Susan (Cerris Morgan-Moyer) arrives, Beverly and Angela have drunkenly bonded, which leaves Susan as somewhat of an outsider. As the evening wears on, Beverly reveals her roaring disdain for Laurence, and tragedy awaits.
Glick is flawless as Beverly, a woman who wants to be both the perfect hostess and the life of the party but instead turns into a screeching harpy of selfishness and malice. Glick doesn’t play Beverly as a caricature, but as a woman with little self-awareness and an excess of ego. James is hilarious as Angela, particularly in a scene where she gets too into a Jose Feliciano record, mouthing the lyrics and shaking about on the couch with overwrought intensity, or a later scene where she does a cheerfully awkward but energetic dance. Morgan-Moyer is fine as the unfortunate Susan, but she is stuck with a straight-woman role that doesn’t really pay off while the two other ladies go happily bonkers. Richardson is good as the exasperated and long-suffering Laurence, more proud of his books’ bindings than of their content, and LaPaglia gets a lot of comic mileage out of a largely monosyllabic role, his silences somehow evocative.
Director Julian Holloway gets nuanced perfs from his cast and keeps the pace uneven, slowing and speeding up just like a real party, with sudden infusions of energy and lags where no one quite knows what to say next. Charles Erven’s living room set is cozy and neat, a nice contrast to the messy actions and emotions of the play. Katharine Tarkulich’s costumes fit the 70s setting well, but Graham Oakes’ sound design, particularly the sound effects coming from a louder party next door whenever the front door is opened, seem somewhat abrupt and unconvincing.