Jessica John, dancing up a storm as Beverly, in "Abigail's Party." Photo by Daren Scott
In the British comedy of manners (both good and bad) “Abigail’s Party” the party isn’t Abigail’s at all. She’s a 15-year-old having a bash next door to the affair her mum is attending – enduring would be more like it. The hostess of that party is Beverly Moss, who is rabid that everyone under the roof of her London flat has a good time. Especially herself.
Always ones for a lively bit of fun, Backyard Renaissance has chosen Mike Leigh’s often-produced 1977 play to kick off its seventh season. Company co-founders Jessica John and Francis Gercke, playing hostess-with-the-mostest (the most booze and cigarettes maybe) Beverly and her buttoned-up spouse Laurence, lead a cast of five at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center downtown. Liliana Talwatte and Carter Piggee portray Angela and Tony, the new neighbors invited over to be plied with drinks and unsolicited advice. Michelle Marie Trester is Sue, the older, more staid neighbor (and that aforementioned mother of Abigail, remember).
The lengthy first act is spent mainly with the principals sitting around Beverly and Laurence’s living room, decorated for garish ‘70s authenticity by Tony Cucuzella with retro furniture, a Princess phone and a phonograph used throughout the play as a source of antagonism between the unhappily marrieds. There are loads of intentionally uncomfortable silences and passive aggressions from Beverly. But the pace is languid. The apparent climax of Act I is Sue throwing up – fortunately offstage.
As everything revolves around the narcissistic Beverly, “Abigail’s Party,” which is directed by Rosina Reynolds, is most dynamic when Jessica John is on her feet: solo dancing to records by Donna Summer, Tom Jones or Demis Roussos, or determinedly fetching refill after refill of cocktails from the bar.
The second act flares with multiple confrontations and some dark comedy that becomes high drama, all to the beat of the muffled music emanating from the teenagers’ unseen reveling next door.
Leigh most certainly instilled some commentary on social class and upward mobility in his script, which also became a popular BBC television movie. If, however, a lesson was supposed to have been learned by (mostly) Beverly at play’s end, it’s not at all clear.
The Backyard Renaissance ensemble gamely carries this tale to its conclusion. John, always entertaining, has the showy role of course. Trester, the next most interesting on stage, manifests that very British --and very appropriate for the goings-on in “Abigail’s Party” -- quiet desperation.
A little credit, too, to dialect coach David Huber. The actors, especially Gercke, sound British enough to make you long for a cup of tea. Or in this case, a gin and tonic.
"Abigail's Party" runs through March 19 at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center downtown.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.