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.

  That’s 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 Group’s about-to-open Acorn Theater production of “Abigail’s Party,” the brilliantly disturbing 1977 drama by Britain’s disturbing, multi-talented Mike Leigh. The director is Scott Elliott.

  Susan isn’t 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 Laurence’s 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 Beverly’s friend Angela (Elizabeth Jasicki), a rather dimwitted registered nurse, and Angela’s 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 daughter’s having a party Is that right?

SUSAN: That’s right, yes.

ANGELA: Has it started yet?

SUSAN: Yes. Yes it has …

ANGELA: How many people are coming to the party?

BEVERLY: About fifteen, isn’t it, Sue?

SUSAN: Well, it was fifteen. Then it went up to twenty, and last night I gathered it was twenty-five.

BEVERLY: It’s creeping up, Sue.


  And from there on, Beverly will strongly urge sending “the men” — Laurence and Tony — over to Susan’s house, just to see what’s going on. The suggestion makes Susan most uncomfortable. She wishes they wouldn’t 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 Leigh’s play takes an ominous, semi-articulated turn toward potential explosion.

Pennsylvania-born-and-bred Lisa Emery said this week, “we’re doing it with British accents. Two members of the cast, Max Baker and Elizabeth Jasicki, are actually English. And no, we’re not changing [Americanizing] anything. I think that’s quite a Scott thing”—to hew to the given text.

  No, Ms. Emery’s son Zane hasn’t thrown any parties to date.

  “He’s not there yet. He’s just turned 12. He’s been to some dances. In this play, something huge is happening offstage. My daughter is having a party and I’m very concerned. I say ‘No’ all the time”—when domineering Beverly wants to dispatch the men over to that other house—“because, knowing my daughter, she’d bite my head off. Sending spies over there! When you’ve been banished from the premises. That’s 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.

  “I’m not like any person I’ve ever played,” Lisa Emery said over the phone from her East Village apartment. “And no, I’ve never played anyone like Sue at all, someone so very conservative and concerned. I’ve played lots of Englishwomen — in Joe Orton’s ‘What the Butler Saw;’ as a woman in prison for killing her husband in ‘Iron;’ as somebody cultured and smart and funny in [Noel Coward’s] ‘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, “Abigail’s Party” bespeaks the 1970s and the England of “I’m all right, Jack” on the verge of Margaret Thatcher — yet Ms. Emery feels, as I do, that this work transcends those references.

  “It doesn’t belong to any particular time, does it?” she said. “Sort of an ageless situation of people trying to be what they’re not, trying to impress one another. Couples, when cracks in the relationships start to show and people start drinking. And it’s really fun watching them.”

  Well, fun but nervous fun.

  “Abigail’s Party” has more than once been linked to Edward Albee’s 1964 “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and Lisa Emery doesn’t 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 Woolf’s,” yes?

  “Yes, definitely—but they’re striving for class.”

  It’s 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 can’t be beat for pulling a cast together.”

  No, she’s hasn’t 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 “Abigail’s Party,” and doesn’t want to until the play ends its run.

  What’s most interesting about Mike Leigh is conveyed in a note at the head of the present script: “ ‘Abigail’s Party’ was evolved from scratch entirely by rehearsal through improvisation.”

  Laurence in “Abigail’s 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, it’s not something you can actually read.”

  I wonder who improvised that one.