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Abigail’s Party

Posted by martinteller on September 4, 2013

Beverly (Alison Steadman) is throwing a party.  The guests are her put-upon real estate agent husband Laurence (Tim Stern), a new couple in the neighborhood, bubbly nurse Angela (Janine Duvitski) and stoic computer operator Tony (John Salthouse), and next-door neighbor Susan (Harriet Reynolds), a divorcée.  Susan’s 15-year-old daughter Abigail is throwing a party of her own.  As the tacky Beverly tries to commandeer the gathering at every step, veiled (and not-so-veiled) barbs fly among the couples, while Sue meekly suffers.

I won’t be first to draw comparisons to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, either the play or the film.  The similarities are too numerous to ignore.  Why, both are even directed by guys named Mike!  Leigh’s stage play adaptation has fewer cinematic aspirations, a made-for-TV production that does little to hide its theatrical roots.  The entire thing takes place in Beverly and Laurence’s house, and only a few brief moments are shot outside the living room.

The most obvious difference is the presence of Susan.  This fifth character is something of an audience surrogate.  And I’m not convinced her being there is an asset.  There is already something a bit condescending about the whole thing, and her uncomfortable reaction shots don’t help in that regard.  The contrast supplied by her polite behavior makes the other four all that much more boorish.  In this sense, I found it more difficult to regard the two couples as human beings.  For a large part of the film, I was worried that I was in for another High Hopes, with its wholly unsympathetic characters, except this time foregrounded far more prominently.

Eventually, however, Leigh does find the humanity in these characters.  But while Steadman’s performance is undeniably towering and iconic, Beverly comes off as the least developed.  There is only the briefest flash of vulnerability in her brash, domineering, tasteless veneer.  It’s just enough to make do, to make her not a complete caricature.  But just barely.  Perhaps closer attention to her performance in a repeat viewing would reveal more subtle cracks.

It’s a difficult piece to “enjoy”.  Less acerbic and hysterical than “Woolf” — and not quite as compelling to me — but the difference in tone allows for a more grounded dynamic.  I would like to see a little more love for these characters and a little less sneering at them, but there are insightful moments, and flashes of wit.  Rating: Very Good (80)


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