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THEATER REVIEW

More secrets and lies

Repressed desires come to the forefront in Mike Leigh's empathetic 1977 play, 'Abigail's Party.'

August 29, 2008|David Ng | Times Staff Writer

The raucous hostess of "Abigail's Party" is a human foghorn whose voice rivals booze in its ability to leave you with a nasty headache. But you'll likely be glad you RSVPed, since the obnoxious words spewing from her mouth were written by the reliably perceptive Mike Leigh.

"Abigail's Party," at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, takes place over a single evening at a suburban London home where two couples and a neighbor have gathered to chat, drink and listen to LPs. The play, written in 1977, is a concentrated hit of Leigh's trademark working-class anthropology -- an unflattering comic treatise that both derides its subjects and tentatively envelops them in a compassionate embrace.

Audiences familiar with Leigh's movies will feel instantly at home among some of the play's more grotesque characters. As the play opens, Beverly (Nikki Glick), a thirtysomething shrew, is throwing a cocktail party with her ineffectual husband (Darren Richardson), a down-market real estate agent.

They've invited over a younger couple, Angela and Tony (Phoebe James and Jonathan LaPaglia), and an uptight single mother (Cerris Morgan-Moyer), whose daughter, Abigail -- an offstage character -- is having her own party next door. As drinks circulate and cigarettes smolder, Beverly's guests start acting out their repressed desires in ugly ways.

As Beverly, Glick elucidates the grasping insecurities of a woman who is never more annoying than when she's trying to be the life of the party. And LaPaglia creates a full-fledged character out of the monosyllabic Tony.

At times, "Abigail's Party" can feel a little bit like staring at Beverly's prized lava lamp -- strangely fascinating but rather numbing. The direction by Julian Holloway falls slack in certain places, and the cast could polish some comic cadences.

Still, it's rare to see a drama that meshes misanthropy and empathy so seamlessly that it almost obliterates the difference. You may hate Beverly and her friends by the end of the evening, but Leigh's characters are likely to stick with you well after the hangover has dissipated.

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david.ng@latimes.com

"Abigail's Party," Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. See www.odysseytheatre.com for schedule. Ends Oct. 19. $25-$30. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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