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2005_12_arts_jjjlbev.jpg How far can you go with making a character outrageous – an outrageous parody, outrageously offensive, the works – without ending up by making him or her merely a joke? That’s one of the questions Mike Leigh plays with in Abigail’s Party, which is having its NYC premiere thanks to The New Group, and it’s the challenge that Jennifer Jason Leigh, as the sultry, sadistic British housewife Beverly, faces as a result. A few times the two Leighs seem close to straying into joke territory, and it would be unfortunate if they did because then the play would come off as a farce: funny, but not much more, not something that makes you think and care about the characters. Beverly, the force of nature at the center of the play, often seems over-the-top, especially with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s grating accent and repetition of a few phrases (good luck leaving the theater without starting to say them yourself), but because her character is both so hilarious and so finely balanced by the circumstances and by the other people present, the whole thing works tremendously well.

Because it does come together so perfectly, it’s hard to believe that Mike Leigh didn’t slave over writing out a master script; as with most of his projects, the lines largely came out of the actors’ collaboration. Maybe I shouldn’t be so incredulous – maybe that kind of organic approach makes such a natural-sounding product more likely. Of course, since the characters in question are British and living in 1977, and since they are often wicked caricatures, their conversation might not sound natural and realistic to contemporary New York audiences, but still, the characters’ chemistry (or lack of it), their pleasantries and their arguments all flow wonderfully. The main source of the fighting is Beverly and her husband Lawrence (Max Baker), a balding, humorless man who pretty much defines the word “hen-pecked.” This spectacularly mismatched couple is hosting a small get-together for a couple new to the building, Tony and Angela (Darren Goldstein and Elizabeth Jasicki) and relatively newly married, and Susan (Lisa Emery), a divorcee who also lives in the building and whose teenage daughter Abigail is having her own, much larger party – the thumping music from it is often audible.

2005_12_arts_bevsparty.jpg There isn't a whole lot more to the plot than the fact of the gathering and the clash of the personalities within it, but that's plenty enough for some major fireworks. As the play’s title suggests, the other party, the invisible Abigail's -- though the audience only hears about it (along with actually hearing it, sort of) -- drives much of the conversation at the adults’ party, serving as both a source of something to talk about during awkward pauses and a proxy for the adults’ insecurities and criticisms of one another. Even so, Beverly and Lawrence are the main show. If you’ve ever seen Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the bitterly feuding couple there at times, especially when the younger couple comes, but Mike Leigh’s take on marriage seems somewhat more cynical and pessimistic, even while being very funny, than Albee’s. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Max Baker are perfect as polar opposites in their roles; one watches them act out their characters’ utter contempt for the other and wonder, slack-jawed, how they ever could have hooked up, and how they’ve managed not to kill each other since. The other actor are all superb, too – Goldstein balances Tony’s monosyllabic oafishness with a growing rage while Jasicki, playing Angela as a goofy romantic, munches innocently on the snacks Beverly set out and admires the flat’s decoration with wide-eyed jealousy, and Emery as Susan stoically, heroically endures Beverly’s terrible hostessing, only getting agitated once in a while when someone starts needling her about Abigail’s party.

Via the increasingly booze-fueled conversation, the audience gets to know the characters quite well, but I would be surprised if anyone really sympathized with them much, since they are all such exaggerated characters. Which is not to say – I noted this at the start – that we don’t care about their situation and what happens. Again, this is '70s London, so one might not think immediately that New York audiences today will be able to relate that much, and this might be why the play has never come to the city before, but it’s quickly clear that it addresses some pretty much universal issues of how people treat each other. Even with all these extreme types on stage, one quickly gets caught up in the verbal and mental battles they wage, that make the play exhausting but exhilarating. Abigail’s Party induces copious amounts of laughter but also twinges of recognition as you watch the characters struggle with each other, controlling and being controlled, and the way the actors navigate the tricky waters between these different modes is not to be missed.

Details: Abigail’s Party is at the Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., through Feb. 11. Shows are Mon.-Sat. 8pm, Sat. 2pm. Tickets are at Ticket Central.

Photo by Carol Rosegg.