Have you ever sat in a theatre and listened to everyone else laugh and wondered what everyone else found so funny?
Last night I saw Abigail’s Party, the last of my four-play package at San Francisco Playhouse. ‘Tis a pity it was so, for I enjoyed the other three performances. Abigail’s Party was something of a bore.
The story revolves around a party thrown by Beverly, a social climber eager to show off to her neighbors, and her husband Lawrence, a high-strung real estate agent. Angela and Tony are the new neighbors in town: Angela is a nurse somewhat lacking in sophistication, and Tony is the anti-social formal footballer. (This is British, by the way, so it’s British football.) Sue is the mother of Abigail, who is throwing her own party a few doors down. She is firmly middle class, and her husband left her. These characters form the basis for a 1970s suburban comedy of errors or, as seemed to me, two hours of awful people being awful.
The action of the first act seemed to go somewhat like this: Beverly says something outrageous, Tony says one word before being silent, Angela says something spacey, Sue looks like she wants to leave, there’s an awkward silence and then Beverly forces everyone to have a drink. Lather, rinse, repeat. Maybe each of these things was funny the first, second, even third time, but after fifteen straight minutes of it, I couldn’t understand what I was supposed to find funny. Instead of witnesses a godawful party I felt like I was at a godawful party and I clearly understood why Sue wanted to be elsewhere.
At intermission, I checked Wikipedia to see if there was some greater narrative I was supposed to understand, and I found out a few things. Firstly, the play does contain social commentary on the state of the rising middle class in 1970s Britain. Seeing as I have little to no experience with the rising middle class in 1970s Britain, I think I may be forgiven for not recognizing this critique. Secondly, I learned that the play was thrown together fairly quickly, based mainly on actor improvisations. Which actually adequately explains how the first act felt: like an awkward improv sketch run amok.
The second act contained a bit more forward momentum than the first, but I was pretty checked out at that point. Lawrence, basically absent throughout the first act, becomes a driving force. At first, I found him sympathetic, since Beverly was such a terror, but then I realized he was an awful person as well. So it became female awful and male awful ordering people about with drunk spacey chick falling all over the place and antisocial dude looking at Beverly’s butt. And poor Sue just wanted to leave. Which I wanted to as well.
I boil my dislike of this show down to the following reasons:
- It was a spotlight show masquerading as an ensemble piece. The play introduces all these varied and vivid characters, but it’s really about seeing how Beverly interacts with them. Just like the guests, the audience never gets a break from Beverly. And honestly, watching her got really old really quickly.
- There was no driving storyline. No actual conflict really emerges until the second act; the first act is just about the awkward Beverly can inflict. Unlike The Importance of Being Earnest, the most well known comedy of manners, there are no sympathetic characters striving for relatable goals.
- I’m too young. I sat next to a few other people about my age, and I don’t think I heard them laugh any more than once. If I were a middle aged, middle-class suburbanite, I might have found the content more familiar and more engaging.
For a bit, I thought it was also because I wasn’t British enough. Then I saw the following on the Wikipedia page:
Channel 4’s reviewer said: “Abigail’s Party still ranks as the most painful hundred minutes in British comedy-drama.”
So while there is definitely rich room for analysis of the characters and their class conflict, it was unfortunately buried under piles of awkward. Since I am unfamiliar with the source material, I don’t know if this was due to the production or to the play itself – but apparently, Mike Leigh himself was surprised with its popularity. Here’s the BBC Teleplay; judge for yourself.