(l to r) Hayley Mills, Allison Jean White, Klea Blackhurst, and Brenda Meaney in ‘Party Face.’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)
By Samuel L. Leiter
The idea of pouring half-a-dozen or so upwardly mobile, attractive but physically diverse women into a comedic beaker and letting their combined chemistry boil into laughs over a writer’s Bunsen burner has proved a successful formula for a number of recent films, Bridesmaids, Rough Night, and Girls Trip among them.
Something similar, if less outrageous, is at work in Party Face, an Irish comedy by Isobel Mahon still playing under its original title as Boom? in Ireland. At the City Center’s Stage II, it features a fine ensemble led by Hayley Mills, British theater royalty (her dad was Sir John Mills). Mills is best known for her days as a child star whose performance in Pollyanna (1960) won the last Academy Award in the now extinct Juvenile Oscar category.
Looking marvelously trim in pink silk slacks, white blouse, and perfectly coiffed blond hair that she never stops patting into place, Mills portrays Carmel, the fashion-obsessed, Botox-assisted, widowed mother of the decidedly unglamorous Mollie Mae (Gina Costigan). As a sign of the play’s pre-#MeToo origins, no one objects when Carmel, in her sixties, boasts of unsolicited male praise for her hotness.
Carmel is present to oversee a wine and nibbles party for Mollie. She intends to show off the fancy new kitchen extension that Mollie’s architect husband has added to her suburban home, near Dublin. We’ll have to wait, though, to find out why there’s such a dent in the marble island and why Mollie, recently released from a psychiatric hospital, is wearing that elastic arm brace
Carmel, loving though she is, is the kind of maternal perfectionist that drives their offspring batty, casually dropping comments about superficialities (like the color of one’s lipstick) that, while meant to help, have a way of drawing blood. She, like all the others, is unlike the usual Irish stage characters we get to see on this side of the pond; written as a satire on the aftereffects of what you might call suburbification following the short-lived Irish “boom,” the play’s occasional stingers could equally as well pierce the pretensions of our own nouveau strivers.
The first guest to arrive (invited, to Mollie’s dismay, by Carmel) is the elegant, stylishly trendy, but hypocritical Chloe (Allison Jean White), whose party face remains relentlessly upbeat regardless of anything downbeat that transpires. Then follows Maeve (Brenda Meaney), Mollie’s cynically feisty older sister, a businesswoman whose reaction to Chloe’s presence doesn’t augur well for what follows.
As Act One ends, a plumbing catastrophe erupts just before the final character comes to the rescue. This isn’t the “man” the retrograde Carmel says is needed but, instead, the denim-wearing oddball Bernie (Alison Cimmet, understudying for Klea Blackhurst the night I went). Bernie is Mollie’s germaphobic, “manic-depressive-obsessive-compulsive” fellow-patient buddy from the psychiatric hospital; in one scene, she obsessively covers a bowl of chips in plastic wrap.
Act One shows everyone struggling to keep their party faces on; by Act Two (after a 15-minute intermission), the Cloudy Bay Sauvignon takes effect, everyone dances to “Turn the Beat Around,” the masks begin to peel, secrets (including those about unfaithful husbands) and personal animosities are aired, clichés and malapropisms thicken, and things grow expectedly outlandish. There’s even a stuff-throwing fight that, like the broken plumbing, injects physical farce into the play’s veins. Ultimately, the tone turns serious, sentimental, and, of course, redemptive.
Amanda Bearse (Marcy D’Arcy on “Married with Children”), making her Off-Broadway directing debut, provides the appropriate sitcom pacing and physical shtick while drawing suitably comic performances from her well-oiled ensemble. The laughs aren’t as frequent as you’d hear on TV but given the familiarity of the material, there are enough (mostly he-he’s, with several ha-ha’s, but too few ho-ho’s) to satisfy high-tolerance playgoers. The play chugs along on track until it eventually runs out of steam; the trouble is there are still 15 minutes to go.
Jeff Ridenour’s kitchen/living room, well-lit by Joyce Liao, is expansive but less show-offy than it might be but Lara de Bruijn’s costumes perfectly encapsulate each character, while Damien Figueras’s sound design fits nicely.
Despite Carmel’s meddlesomeness, Mills makes her adorably loopy, but Allison Jean White, with her colorful brogue and her lanky frame wrapped around Chloe’s pretensions, almost steals the show. Brenda Meaney (daughter of Irish actor Colm Meaney), crowned with a million auburn curls, is a cuttingly urgent Maeve, and Gina Costigan’s glum Molly seems a bit too stable for someone with her recent mental history.
Alison Cimmet, who understudies everyone, offered an appealingly kooky Bernie the night I went. Last week, remarkably, she covered for Mills; it would be fascinating to see her do all the other roles. That might even make it worthwhile to revisit this party.
City Center Stage II
131 W. 55th St., NYC
Through April 8
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).