If such recent New York stage revivals as “Hurlyburly,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Absurd Person Singular” are any indication, it might seem that getting together for drinks was the domesticated, late-20th-century equivalent of entering the gladiatorial arena. Add to that list the belated Gotham premiere of “Abigail’s Party,” in which clouds of cigarette smoke and rivers of booze do little to camouflage the ugly underside of social niceties. Mike Leigh’s 1977 play remains a cruel and compelling comic horror show in New Group a.d. Scott Elliott’s bristling, finely detailed staging, compromised only by a mannered star turn from Jennifer Jason Leigh.
An insensitive monster convinced that her crassness is the last word in style and taste, Beverly is a tightrope act for any actress. A fabricated phony assuming the role of civilized hostess, this lower-middle-class climber requires no additional layers of phoniness. Developed through his trademark process of long rehearsal periods and managed improvisation, Mike Leigh’s work for both stage and screen plies a brand of heightened realism that flirts with caricature. But Jennifer Jason Leigh’s actressy affectation pushes it over the edge. She wears the role rather than inhabiting it, greedily snatching focus from the more measured ensemble that flanks her.
Onstage solo in the opening scene, Leigh amusingly defines Beverly’s self-conscious self-confidence as she slinks around Derek McLane’s set, a suitably ostentatious model of modish ’70s-chic decor.
Dropping Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” onto the turntable, she dances seductively, winking approval at herself in the mirror while sparking up a cigarette, adjusting the lighting and arranging cocktail snacks. Overdressed in clingy, ostrich-trimmed hostess wear that looks like vintage Frederick’s of Hollywood, with turquoise eyelids and cascades of curling-wanded hair, Beverly leaves no doubt that she’s playing a part, even for herself.
But when Leigh opens her mouth to speak in a reedy voice and an accent that ranges unevenly up and down the class scale, there’s an abrasive, artificial-upon-artificial quality that immediately jars, only to worsen as the play goes on.
In the original production filmed for the BBC, Alison Steadman’s defining performance in the role was hardly naturalistic. But beneath the arch theatrical veneer and know-all shrillness was a more pathetic reality: the unconscious desperation of a class-free woman straining to convey poise and sophistication. That subcutaneous layer is mostly missing here.
It’s not the party of the title but one happening simultaneously that unfolds onstage. Beverly and her emasculated husband, Laurence (Max Baker), are entertaining new suburban neighbors Angela (Elizabeth Jasicki) and Tony (Darren Goldstein). Prim divorcee Susan (Lisa Emery) has been invited to keep her out of the way of 15-year-old daughter Abigail, who’s having her first unsupervised party in their downstairs flat. Thumping Sex Pistols bass lines audible from that rowdy gathering underscore the supposedly more genteel interaction chez Beverly.
Not a lot happens, and playwright Leigh presents the uncomfortably recognizable types pretty much as they are, deepening first impressions rather than orchestrating dramatic revelations. But as satirical character study, the play is savagely funny, incisive and unforgiving.
It’s easy to see why Beverly would like having these guests around, each of them feeding her distorted sense of superiority and soaking up her condescension. A nurse given to inane prattle and inappropriate laughter, Angela is a graceless twit almost impervious to the fact that her monosyllabic ex-footballer husband can barely tolerate her. “He’s very quick-tempered,” she concedes. “I think it’s because of the red hair.” A more cultured woman, dumped by her husband and intimidated by her rebellious daughter, Susan remains polite yet is clearly unable to relax. Her anxiety and embarrassment increase as Beverly insistently keeps topping up her G&T well beyond Susan’s accustomed alcohol intake.
Beverly and Laurence bait each other in different ways. She barks orders at him, belittles him about being a workaholic bore and openly flirts with the more masculine Tony. Laurence is more passive-aggressive. Hunched over in perpetual humiliation yet still prone to striking back, his awkward stabs at elevating the tone of the evening are aimed as much at underscoring Beverly’s vulgarity as they are at illustrating his own pretensions toward refinement.
While Leigh’s Beverly keeps the audience at a distance, revealing too much mechanical evidence of her craft to disappear inside the character, Baker is excruciatingly real; his wincing nervousness and fumbling bids to protect some shred of dignity are painful to watch.
Similarly outstanding work comes from Emery, whose mortification battles stiffly with her preoccupation about the damage and debauchery being unleashed by Abigail and guests downstairs.
Bespectacled and dressed in haute-nerd couture, Jasicki brings ghastly accuracy to a cheerful dolt, blessed with neither wit nor tact but with a basically good heart. And Goldstein supplies the production’s drollest turn, his barely suppressed hostility threatening to boil over into violence at any time.
Directing his fourth Leigh play for the New Group, Elliott expertly ratchets up tensions throughout as the party dissolves into disaster. There are quiet hints that the hosts’ union is based on genuine feeling and perhaps that Angela and Tony, mismatched as they are, have some kind of working symbiosis. But even as Beverly and Laurence’s descent into unveiled combat yields tragic results, the playwright refuses to shift into a more consolatory mode, suggesting that, for these people, this grotesquely clueless charade of marriage and social intercourse is all there is.