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Theatre in Review: Party Face (City Center Stage II)

: Hayley Mills, Brenda Meaney, Allison Jean White. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Whatever you think of Party Face -- and, sooner or later, we're going to have get around to that -- Hayley Mills is a delight. Chicly dressed in satiny pants, a bolero jacket, and low heels, her face wreathed in daffodil-colored tresses, her demeanor one of perpetual delighted surprise, she is, despite the passing years, remarkably how one remembers her. Even better, swanning around the stage and trying to exert control over a drinks party gone wrong, she remains, in some fundamental way, the open-faced imp of the perverse who sparkled in half a dozen Disney film comedies. In case you were wondering, the girl of your youthful moviegoing has matured into a fine high-comedy technician.

In Isobel Mahon's ladies'-night-out comedy, she is Carmel, an aggressively cheerful Dublin widow whose main hobby is undermining her two daughters. As the play begins, she is working her dark magic on Mollie Mae, her younger child, who is hosting a little wine-and-snacks get-together. As Carmel hauls two hundred euros' worth of "nibbles" out of two large sacks, Mollie gently objects, saying, "But I already got stuff." Beaming beatifically, Carmel replies, "I see that, pet. Aren't you great to have managed?" Casting a cold eye on Mollie's choice of lipstick, she says, "That's a winter. Kills you stone dead. Sorry, but I don't make the rules." Issuing storm signals that one ignores at one's peril, she says, "Sweetie, you're upsetting Mummy," her saccharin smile sending a dire warning that she won't be crossed.

Mills also has a nifty way with physical comedy, most of it having to do with Jeff Ridenour's attractive set, a sleek, shiny-surfaced combination kitchen/living room. (It's a renovation, supervised by Mollie's husband, an architect, who has taken a powder -- possibly forever -- a fact that she is strenuously hiding from Carmel.) She tangles with a retractable faucet head, struggles mightily to pry open seemingly impregnable cabinet doors, and gamely leaps onto a leathery stool, only to slide right off. I'll bet you money that she'd be a riot as the overbearing matron in any one of a dozen Alan Ayckbourn farces.

Currently, however, she is starring in Party Face, a vulgar sitcom that is inferior to much of what one can currently find on network television. Mollie has just returned from a short stay in a psychiatric institution -- a topic Carmel wants to bury. ("I just don't want people thinking you're...unfortunate.") Ever the meddler, she has invited Chloe, the neighborhood snob and an inveterate brand-name dropper, in hopes that Mollie can pick up a few style tips. The rest of the guest list includes Maeve, Carmel's much-disapproved-of elder offspring, a wisecracking career gal and divorcée, and Bernie, Mollie's friend from the asylum; the author tries lamely to play Bernie's extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder for laughs; she was institutionalized for putting plastic wrap about practically everything in the house: "bed, book, knickers, bra, skateboard, tampons, douche."

As the quote directly above reveals, Mahon is happy to settle for any old punchline. When Carmel proudly shows off the effects of her Botox treatment, Maeve replies, "Your buttocks?" Carmel recalls a family friend who "took early retirement and went off to an ashcan in India." Recalling her late husband, she says, "Sure, he wouldn't have noticed if I'd walked in the door spinning tassels on my ta-tas." An adultery is exposed, and a husband is hauled out of the closet. Also, there's a kitchen flood, a blackout, a conga line, and a catfight. I won't tell you which of the characters take part in the hair-pulling match. Some things you should find out for yourself.

Under the direction of Amanda Bearse, the cast works hard, trying to enliven characters who, stylistically, are all over the map. Gina Costigan underplays deftly as Mollie, serving as straight woman to Carmel, but it's hard to believe that, only a few days earlier, she was unhinged enough to take a sledgehammer to her marble kitchen counter. Chloe is a one-woman cliché machine -- her ideas are cadged from glossy women's magazines and her favorite pastime is advertising her privileged status ("Thank god for my Filipino girl, Amina. She's keeping an eye on Thierry [her pretentiously named son] for me.") -- and Allison Jean White, probably sensibly, plays her as an out-and-out cartoon. Brenda Meaney makes plenty of acid cracks as Maeve, but few of them amuse. Klea Blackhurst's performance as Bernie is one long series of plastic-wrap jokes.

The production's slick look -- including Joyce Liao's lighting -- is a help, even if Lara de Bruijn's costumes sometimes stray toward caricature, particularly in the case of Bernie, who is outfitted for any available cleaning task. Damien Figueras' sound design includes a bit of the seventies disco classic "Turn the Beat Around."

Late in the evening, Mahon drags in a couple of family tragedies in an attempt at adding dramatic ballast to this frothy enterprise; a revelation from Carmel's past -- which is meant to explain her domineering ways -- feels particularly opportunistic. Party Face stops at nothing in pandering to its target audience of middle-aged women, its bitchy remarks ultimately giving way to a display of sisterly solidarity. And who knows? Maybe this familiar laughter-and-tears cocktail and the presence of Mills will be enough to put it over. In any case, the lady is a charmer, and I hope she comes around again soon. Personally, however, I think Mollie's husband was smart to flee this party. -- David Barbour


(25 January 2018)

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