A party to remember
By Jerry Tallmer
Susan is divorced. Lisa is divorced.
Susan has a 15-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son. Lisa has a 12-year-old son.
Thats the sum and substance of what these two women have in common. Except that Lisa Emery, who is in fact nothing at all like the Susan she plays, is at this moment in rehearsals as silent Sue in the New Groups about-to-open Acorn Theater production of Abigails Party, the brilliantly disturbing 1977 drama by Britains disturbing, multi-talented Mike Leigh. The director is Scott Elliott.
Susan isnt really totally silent, she just seems so in the face of unstoppable, ball-breaking Beverly (Jennifer Jason Leigh, no relation to Mike Leigh), wife of obnoxious work-addicted real-estate hustler Laurence (Max Baker), in whose house Beverly and Laurences middle-middle-class London house the events of the evening take place.
Susan has come over for that evening so as to clear out of her own nearby house, where daughter Abigail is throwing a party for her teenage mates. This is the era of Elvis and pink hair and safety-pin jeans, you understand.
Also on hand chez Beverly are Beverlys friend Angela (Elizabeth Jasicki), a rather dimwitted registered nurse, and Angelas taciturn, brutish husband Tony (Darren Goldstein), former footballer (what we Americans call soccer), now a low-level computer technician.
ANGELA, to Susan: Beverly says your daughters having a party Is that right?
SUSAN: Thats right, yes.
ANGELA: Has it started yet?
SUSAN: Yes. Yes it has
ANGELA: How many people are coming to the party?
BEVERLY: About fifteen, isnt it, Sue?
SUSAN: Well, it was fifteen. Then it went up to twenty, and last night I gathered it was twenty-five.
BEVERLY: Its creeping up, Sue.
And from there on, Beverly will strongly urge sending the men Laurence and Tony over to Susans house, just to see whats going on. The suggestion makes Susan most uncomfortable. She wishes they wouldnt go. But in the end, Beverly (as always) prevails. The men do go over to take a look. And with the return of one of them, Mike Leighs play takes an ominous, semi-articulated turn toward potential explosion.
Pennsylvania-born-and-bred Lisa Emery said this week, were doing it with British accents. Two members of the cast, Max Baker and Elizabeth Jasicki, are actually English. And no, were not changing [Americanizing] anything. I think thats quite a Scott thingto hew to the given text.
No, Ms. Emerys son Zane hasnt thrown any parties to date.
Hes not there yet. Hes just turned 12. Hes been to some dances. In this play, something huge is happening offstage. My daughter is having a party and Im very concerned. I say No all the timewhen domineering Beverly wants to dispatch the men over to that other housebecause, knowing my daughter, shed bite my head off. Sending spies over there! When youve been banished from the premises. Thats threatening for any mother. Terrifying.
A theatergoer who has seen (and admired) this actress a number of times over the years does not think of her as partifularly shy, and says so now.
It brings forth her laugh.
Im not like any person Ive ever played, Lisa Emery said over the phone from her East Village apartment. And no, Ive never played anyone like Sue at all, someone so very conservative and concerned. Ive played lots of Englishwomen in Joe Ortons What the Butler Saw; as a woman in prison for killing her husband in Iron; as somebody cultured and smart and funny in [Noel Cowards] Present Laughter but never anybody as shy and quiet as this.
Art attains the universal through the explicit. In every detail including musical references and Briticisms, Abigails Party bespeaks the 1970s and the England of Im all right, Jack on the verge of Margaret Thatcher yet Ms. Emery feels, as I do, that this work transcends those references.
It doesnt belong to any particular time, does it? she said. Sort of an ageless situation of people trying to be what theyre not, trying to impress one another. Couples, when cracks in the relationships start to show and people start drinking. And its really fun watching them.
Well, fun but nervous fun.
Abigails Party has more than once been linked to Edward Albees 1964 Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Lisa Emery doesnt disagree.
A party. [The adult one, that is.] Two couples. Drinking. Just to watch them disintegrating in front of your eyes
But these are couples of a lower class than Virginia Woolfs, yes?
Yes, definitelybut theyre striving for class.
Its the seventh or eighth time Lisa Emery has worked with Scott Elliott, and she considers him just the best ensemble director she knows, one who cant be beat for pulling a cast together.
No, shes hasnt yet met Mike Leigh she will soon whose impact on this country as writer and director has come as strongly through film (Topsy-Turvy, Naked, Secrets & Lies, Closer) as stage. Nor has she seen the BBC version of Abigails Party, and doesnt want to until the play ends its run.
Whats most interesting about Mike Leigh is conveyed in a note at the head of the present script: Abigails Party was evolved from scratch entirely by rehearsal through improvisation.
Laurence in Abigails Party prides himself on his possession, shall we say, of art and literature, including a Van Gogh reproduction and a gold-embossed complete set of Charles Dickens works. He pulls down a volume of Shakespeare to show off to Tony the footballer.
Part of our heritage, says Laurence. Of course, its not something you can actually read.
I wonder who improvised that one.