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Theatre in Review: Muswell Hill (The Barrow Group/Pond Theatre Company)

Jason Alan Carvell, Colleen Clinton. Photo: Todd Cerveris

Jess, the put-upon hostess of Torben Betts' new play, struggles to hold together a dinner party entirely populated by uncongenial souls; Betts has much the same challenge, and he fares only marginally better at the task. Nobody loves a state-of-the-nation play like the British, but this takedown of the UK's privileged classes -- the action is set in one of London's posher suburbs -- lacks sting partly because the author is so busy overstating his case and partly because he has trouble drawing credible characters. Some pretty tasty laughs notwithstanding, what starts out as a crackling comedy of social and personal discontent eventually turns into more of a scolding -- and a not terribly effective one at that.

We are in Jess' kitchen as dinner is being prepared; while she tends to the details, her husband, Mat, is hunched over his laptop, taking in the details of a rejection letter from a publishing house. A veteran of the fashion industry -- without saying so, the script suggests that he was once a model -- he has spent five years laboring on an opus titled King of the Catwalk, to little commercial interest. Jess assumes the role of supportive spouse, but Betts, who has a nearly faultless ear for what isn't said, gives her a buck-up speech that proves to be spectacularly undermining: "Well, some of things they've said have been quite... And you've got to hold on to that. And I know I'm biased but I genuinely think it's a... It's a novel and you've just got to believe in yourself..." Then Mat oh-so-casually drops the following remark: "By the way, a social networking acquaintance of mine informs me that for the last two months you've been having sex with an Australian electrician called Stuart. Would you care to comment on this at all?"

The question is left hanging as the buzzer rings and the guests start to arrive. First up is Karen, a cancer nurse, who can't stop talking about herself and her late husband -- a secular saint, she insists -- wielding his memory like a club against any man who might be interested in her today. (Actually, he sounds like a pill of the first order -- an abstemious vegetarian who had a vasectomy rather than contribute to world overpopulation by producing more "selfish and destructive primates.") For someone devoted to the betterment of mankind, Karen brandishes a pretty sharp verbal knife herself. Learning that Mat is still trying to make a go of his novel, she gazes at him pityingly and murmurs, "God bless you for trying."

Karen doesn't know it, but she is about to be paired off with the next guest, Simon, an old school friend of Mat's -- if that's the word I want for someone who says, out of earshot, that he's "not sure, though, if [Mat] was ever capable of an original, independent thought." A globetrotting ne'er-do-well, Simon is a prig of the first order, gifted with the social skills of Savonarola. Currently, he is getting a teaching certificate: "Want to help open the eyes of England's youth. Alert them to the horrors of the capitalist system into which they have all been born." Incapable of opening his mouth without pontificating, he lectures Karen about the soft drink in her hand, informing her that it was created to slake the thirst of oppressed Glaswegian steelworkers whose livers were being destroyed by too much beer.

For all the wind he expends in Karen's direction, Simon is really interested in meeting Annie, Jess' twenty-three-year-old sister. ("You said she was stunning," says Simon. "But with very low self-esteem," replies Mat. "The perfect combination," enthuses Simon.) Annie, however, is an empty-headed nervous breakdown in hot pants who brings the news that she is engaged to Tony, a married sixty-year-old drama teacher. This sparks the following sisterly exchange:

Jess: How did you...?
Annie: At a meeting.
Jess: So he's an alcoholic?

Annie: Sort of.
Jess: But you brought wine.
Annie: We like wine.
Jess: But you've been doing so well...
Annie: I'm a happy drinker now.

Tony shows up and is nearly immediately unmasked as grizzled, girl-crazy old lecher who has been thrown out of the house and is killing time with Annie until his wife cools off. He also can't stop publicly polishing his résumé: "I happen to be something of an expert on the Bard of Stratford," he says, causing Simon to wonder why he just can't say the word "Shakespeare."

Betts juggles all six of these basket cases as an allegedly pleasant evening heads directly toward ninth-circle-of-hell territory. Karen shamelessly pursues Simon, who, given his consumption, could have his own wine vat, and who gets franker and more scalding with each utterance. Annie spins ever-more-elaborate sketches of the future in which she is Tony's wife and a successful actress/singer, but it's all a pipe dream, as evidenced when Jess overhears Tony on the phone, begging his wife to let him come home. And then there's the little matter of that Australian electrician...

The first half of the play is reasonably amusing -- these people are so awful that at first you have to laugh -- but it wears thin, largely because they don't sustain one's interest over two full acts. There's a trick to this kind of comedy: The characters must be held at sufficient distance to create satire while simultaneously kept close enough to excite a bit of empathy. Alan Ayckbourn is a master of finding humor in and compassion for characters who are, basically, drabs and bores; rather than revealing more of themselves, the inhabitants of Muswell Hill simply state and restate their problems, ending up as dull as they would be in real life.

When the action eventually turns serious -- especially in a long, desperate denunciation by Simon and a tense, ugly exchange between Jess and Mat -- the characters can't bear the weight of the added significance. It doesn't help that Betts keeps interrupting the action with bulletins from the earthquake in Haiti -- the play is set in 2010 -- filled with horrific details about destruction, illness, and poverty that stand in stark contrast to the concerns of these navel-gazers. One or two instances of this would suffice, but he can't let it go.

If Muswell Hill tends to lecture rather than entertain, there is pleasure to be had in the crack ensemble, directed by Shannon Patterson, who mine every bit of the script's humor. First among equals is Colleen Clinton as Jess, who is determined to proceed with the evening despite everything, her subtle displays of displeasure giving way to carefully controlled fury in her final showdown with Mat. He is played with equal finesse by Jason Alan Carvell, who gradually reveals the sadly immature man-boy behind the façade of cool. Lily Dorment's Karen is blithely unaware of the foolishness of her flame-keeping ways, especially given an eleventh-hour revelation about her husband's death. Richard Hollis' nakedly self-loathing Simon has some real punch, especially when he turns on Mat in front of the others. John Pirkis skillfully embodies Tony, who is probably the biggest mess, which is saying something; he is too clueless to understand his own rampant selfishness, seeing himself as a victim because he must work all day with "magnificent totty," otherwise known as nubile young females. Sarah Street gives Annie a dizzy screwball charm, although her characterization isn't helped by either an out-of-left-field revelation about her childhood or a scene that requires her to throw herself at Tony, saying, "I need my daddy." We already understood his appeal.

The production looks great: Edward T. Morris' sleek kitchen set, with the audience on three sides, is burnished by Solomon Weisbard's lighting. Kristin Isola's costumes nail each character, drawing useful comparisons between Mat's chic denim shirt-and-vest ensemble and Simon's drab wardrobe. She also gives all three female characters a strong visual profile. Matt Otto's sound design includes some evocative pop music selections between scenes.

The dinner party from hell has a long and honorable tradition in the English-speaking theatre, and Betts is clearly a talented writer. But this effort isn't sufficiently satirical or mordant to indict a way of life. It's just a really bad night out for six people, most of whom you'd cross the street to avoid. Chances are, you'll occasionally find them very funny, but my guess is you won't give a hoot about them. -- David Barbour

(22 November 2017)

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