Actors put some life in SF Playhouse’s Party

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Light my fire: Bev (Susi Damilano, far left) and Tony (Patrick Kelly Jones) grind into some dirty dancing, while Laurence (Remi Sandri, center) and Sue (Julia Brothers) keep things a little more polite in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party. Below: the revelers of Abigail’s Party, from left, Allison Jean White, Jones, Brothers, Damilano and Sandri. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

If you’ve seen a Mike Leigh movie, the conversational rhythms and that true-to-life quality of nothing happening/everything happening will seem familiar on stage in Abigail’s Party, a play Leigh devised in 1978 with the help of his actors (Leigh is famous for improvising scripts). Though not nearly as substantial or illuminating as some of Leigh’s best movies – Life Is Sweet, Secrets and Lies, Another Year Abigail’s Party has some delightful gin-soaked moments as an older couple and a younger couple mix it up Virginia Woolf-style under the wary (and woozy) eye of a neighbor who would probably rather be anywhere but this party.

At San Francisco Playhouse, director Amy Glazer and her quintet of actors is working wonders with the subtext in Leigh’s script, finding laughs that perhaps Leigh never even knew about. There’s a manic energy to this two-hour production that intensifies with each gin and tonic (for the ladies) or rum and Coke (for the nearly monosyllabic gentleman) or whiskey (for the host). While this can be very entertaining, especially each time the hostess grabs an empty (or nearly empty) glass from someone’s hand and gives them a “little top-up” whether they want it or not, it’s also a little unsettling, which is as it should be.

We’re on Richmond Road in a London suburb. As designed by Bill English, the living room/dining room/kitchen set evokes the late ’70s so perfectly you may feel time travel really is possible.

Beverly (Susi Damilano) and Laurence (Remi Sandri) are hosting a little neighborhood soiree. Their guests are the new couple in the ‘hood, Angela (Allison Jean White) and Patrick Kelly Jones), and Sue (Julia Brothers), whose teenage daughter is having a rowdy party a few houses down where mom is distinctly unwelcome. With her blond hair in a Farrah-like flip and a bright green dress cut down to here (terrific costumes are by Tatjana Genser), Bev is raring for a good time. Laurence is preoccupied with work, and poor Sue, an uncomfortable divorcee, is worried about her daughter (the unseen Abigail of the title), her home and her ability to withstand an evening with her neighbors.

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Sweet-natured, gabby Angela is game for anything and never minds Bev’s constant “topping-up” of her G&T, while Tony grunts an occasional word and makes no move to dissuade Bev from her flagrant flirtation with him. Laurence can’t help but notice the devouring looks being shared between Tony and his wife, and rather than address the situation directly, he reacts in passive-aggressive, wounded-ego ways that only intensify his indigestion.

The party is all fun and games for a while as the booze flows, the cigarettes turn to ash and social formalities begin disintegrating.

The entire cast is wonderful, but Brothers all but steals the show as practically silent Sue. Brothers can say more with a look than anyone else on stage, and she’s brilliant at conveying British reserve and good manners underscored by fear, loathing and utter disgust. It would be hard to tear your eyes away from Brothers if White weren’t so wonderful as Angela. Her accent is spot on, and though Angela can be annoying (you begin to understand why her husband is such a withdrawn caveman), she’s well intentioned and harmless – and in White’s capable hands, hilarious.

When the play decides to veer in a dramatic direction, it goes there in a hurry, and the inevitable hangover the next morning arrives early…and hammers hard. Director Glazer has modulated her production in such a way that the shift in tone isn’t a complete surprise. There are dark, serious currents to even the most frivolous scenes early on (Damilano is especially good conveying the nasty edge to the comedy), so when this party is over, you feel like the revelers are actually getting the evening they deserve.


Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party continues through July 6 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

God of Carnage or Why the end of the world is A-OK

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Oh, the carnage. The cast of Marin Theatre Company’s God of Carnage comprises, from left, Remi Sandri, Stacy Ross, Rachel Harker and Warren David Keith. Below: Ross works out some of her frustration on Sandri as Keith watches. Photos by Ed Smith

Watching four people try to practice “the art of coexistence,” as the playwright puts it, is entertaining but ultimately depressing in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage at Marin Theatre Company. One of the hottest plays in recent memory, Carnage is the perfect storm of contemporary drama. It has one set, four actors and that perfect blend of satirically repulsive comedy and apparent moral heft. Oh, and it has impressive vomit special effects and that most satisfying of dramatic dénouements, the destruction of a mobile phone.

What it doesn’t have – not even in this brilliantly produced MTC version – is a satisfying reason for being. It puts on a good show with a few laughs (some guilty, some not) and the can’t-turn-away watchability of a horrible traffic accident where you have that fleeting feeling that it could have been you in that gnarled, bloody mass of steel and glass. But it doesn’t turn those elements into anything larger or more profound or even profoundly funny.

If you’ve seen the Roman Polanski movie version of the play (called simply Carnage), you haven’t really seen it. The movie, starring Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster, is dreadful from start to finish. Watching it, you feel like the play should have never left the stage, where the audience plays a huge role with outsize reactions and a heightened sense of absurdity. We’re all in it together in a theater exercising our willing suspension of disbelief (a real asset to Reza’s play), but the movie plays it like reality, and that absolutely makes mincemeat of Carnage.

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The great pleasure of MTC’s Carnage is the quartet of actors under the direction of Ryan Rilette. It’s all about game playing and false fronts and shifting loyalties as two couples gather in a Brooklyn apartment to discuss an act of 11-year-old on 11-year-old violence. One couple’s son bashed the other’s son in the face with a stick, so the parents are making like grown-ups and discussing it with broad-minded civility.

The good intentions and strained smiles last for a few minutes at best, then the claws start to emerge and the ugliness descends. What spins out for 80 minutes is humiliation, rum, optimism, pessimism, brutality, savagery, pettiness and a pear-apple clafouti that will forever give that dessert a bad name.

Stacy Ross and Remi Sandri are Veronica and Michael Novak, the kind of hip, successful parents you imagine living in a Brooklyn apartment decorated with lots of cool African masks on the walls (the set by Nina Ball is exaggerated perfection). He deals in domestic hardware and she writes books about the massacre in Darfur. Warren David Keith and Rachel Harker are Alan and Annette Raleigh, seemingly another category of parents. He’s a high-powered lawyer (he’s trying a case in The Hague and says things to coworkers like “We’ll think about the victims later, Murray.”) and she’s in wealth management. He’s always on his phone tending to business and she…well, she is hard to peg until the rum starts melting her mask.

This play (translated by Christopher Hampton) is a nasty piece of work, with lots of talk about “fucking Neanderthals” and the total destruction (emotionally, anyway) of the one character who claims to care about culture and society and civilization and all it stands form. But the most depressing thing about these four people is their almost total lack of humor. “I don’t have a sense of humor and have no intention of acquiring one,” says Veronica. Now that hurts. The one thing that might engender connection among these people (even among the spouses themselves) is a good laugh, perhaps not at another person’s expense or fueled by hatred or rage or utter disgust.

Reza is satisfied to turn her cosmopolitan quartet into a snarling clutch of wild animals, weeping and bemoaning the world and one another. And it’s not enough. It’s not a fully satisfying evening of theater. The play doesn’t have the courage to head into complete despair, nor does it have the boldness to offer some sort of alternative (except maybe a hint of loving and caring for your children above all other petty distractions). The best we can hope for, according to Alan, is “one pain the balls after another.” Ouch.


Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage continues through June 17 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $34-$50. Call 415-388-5208 or visit