Stage II at New York City Center
Thursday - Monday through April 8, $38-$128
There’s a good amount of fun to be had in Isobel Mahon’s Party Face, continuing at New York City Center’s Stage II through April 8. But there’s also something just a little bit off, detracting from the overall impact of the play, which was named Best Production at the 1st Irish Awards. The night I went, the onstage clock was an hour fast, so when one character arrives early, the party host says, “It’s only twenty to . . . I said eight.” But the time on the clock was actually twenty to nine, and no one ever corrected the issue as the play continued and the clock kept real, running time. Of course, I don’t know if the clock is off for every performance, that maybe it is supposed to represent how everything is askew in this self-contained world, but there are other problems as well — in addition to some pure pleasures. Recently released after a stay in a psychiatric ward, Mollie Mae (Gina Costigan) is hosting a small gathering to show off the new extension on her kitchen, which features an impressive refrigerator, large cabinets, and a marble island in the center, with one corner smashed up. It’s her domineering, judgmental mother, Carmel (Hayley Mills), who has arrived early, bearing fancy nibbles to counteract her daughter’s low-rent crisps and hummus. She has also arrived with her share of quips belittling Mollie, complaining about her makeup, what she’s wearing, and even the flowers she has put out. “Oh, lovely flowers,” the impeccably dressed and styled Carmel, who is all about appearance, says. “’Course, in my day you never saw a lily outside of a funeral parlor.” Mollie is upset when Carmel tells her that she has taken the liberty of inviting one of Mollie’s neighbors, Chloe (usually played by Allison Jean White, but we saw her understudy, Alison Cimmet), an overly glamorous gossip queen who never misses a chance to stick it to Mollie, all in the guise of being a caring friend. They are soon joined by Mollie’s sister, Maeve (Brenda Meaney), a tough, cynical divorcee who rolls her eyes at most of what her mother and Chloe say. The last guest is Bernie (Klea Blackhurst), an oddball woman who met Mollie in the mental hospital and has a liking for wrapping everything in cling film, the British term for plastic wrap. Insults fly, secrets are revealed, and all kinds of objects get wrapped in cling film as the five very different women relentlessly go at it; the only sign of a man is an offstage topiary bush in the shape of male genitalia, trimmed by Mollie’s absent husband, an architect named Alan.
Party Face might not be The Women, but Mahon (So Long, Sleeping Beauty; Box of Frogs) has created five overly caricatured but recognizable ladies who deliver some very funny, if sometimes a bit obvious, dialogue. Mentioning her husband, the superficial and vapid Chloe states, “Turlough says, ‘Chloe, you’re such a good listener, you mustn’t let people take advantage.’ But as I say, ‘Turlough, it’s what gives my life meaning. And I think meaning is so important in life.” Carmel continually sides with Chloe, who is like the daughter she never had, as she keeps taking shots at both Mollie and Maeve. When Carmel discusses how she and her friends have all gotten Botox, Maeve says, “Jesus, it’s an epidemic; your lunches’ll be great gas, sixteen at the table and not a twitch between you.” Carmel replies, “Oh, you can mock, Maeve; wouldn’t do you any harm to have it done yourself. You’re not blessed with Mollie’s good skin.” But it’s Bernie who saves the day, and the play, with her strange pronouncements, her fear of germs, and her genuine honesty. When Chloe asks her if anyone else from their “little community” is coming, Bernie replies, “Well, I asked a couple from our obsessive-compulsive encounter group but they’re both agoraphobics, so they wouldn’t come out.” The audience is virtually another guest at the party, which takes place on Jeff Ridenour’s cozy kitchen / living room set. In her off-Broadway directing debut, Amanda Bearse (Married with Children, Fright Night) keeps all the characters busy, although some of the slapstick is too forced. It’s a joy to see Mills, a child star who appeared in such films as The Parent Trap, Whistle down the Wind, Pollyanna, and Tiger Bay, in such an intimate venue at City Center. No stranger to the stage, she won a Theatre World Award for her 2000 performance in Noël Coward’s Suite in Two Keys and more recently toured with her sister, Juliet Mills, in James Kirkwood’s Legends! Mills, now seventy-one, is delightful as Carmel, an extravagant, vain, and sexy woman who cares most about how things affect her. Costigan (The Suitcase under the Bed, Crackskull Row), Meaney (Indian Ink, Incognito), and Cimmet (Amelie, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) are all solid but they are overshadowed by Blackhurst (Everything the Traffic Will Allow, Hazel), who is impossible to stop watching as she delivers funny lines or keeps wrapping whatever she can get her hands on. Of course, she does so with see-through cling film, so the objects are still visible, much like the party faces that the other women first put on but ultimately pull away to reveal their true selves. Several of the late revelations come out of thin air, attempting to explain some of the interactions between Carmel and her daughters, but it reduces the energy, which is perhaps most evident in the ever-present chunk missing from Mollie’s marble kitchen island. Now, if only I could figure out what’s up with that clock.