A college professor turned full-time party host purses his lips to mitigate his simpering enthusiasm. He declares that in Denver, throwing the bash of the season requires more than just careful planning, flawless execution and a politically correct guest list. In order for his suburban soiree to be a resounding success, says the leading character in A.R. Gurney's The Perfect Party, it must receive a favorable review from a major New York newspaper.
Enter Lois (Carol Elliott), a professional critic who jets in from the Big Apple to check out the gathering hosted by Tony (Ed Baierlein) and Sally (Sallie Diamond) and Tony's hideous neighbors, Wes (Eric Field) and Wilma (Erica Sarzin-Borrillo). When Lois threatens to withhold publication of the review unless the experience measures up to her vision of the ideal shindig, the flummoxed Tony promises to introduce her to his well-endowed--and, it turns out, spuriously invented--twin brother, Tod (named for the German word for death and also portrayed by Baierlein). As might be expected, the characters' inevitable meshing of the loins sets the stage for Gurney's riotous commentary on what passes for critical meetings of the mind nowadays. And under Baierlein's adroit direction, Germinal Stage Denver's enjoyable production delivers the playwright's message by way of several sight gags, some deftly placed one-liners and, fittingly, Baierlein's delightful Jekyll-and-Hyde portrayal.
But even though the playwright employs a handful of zingers to send up the would-be guardians of American culture ("There have to be standards in this world and I'd like to be the one that sets them," says the self-assured Lois), Gurney's laugh riot doesn't get seriously under way until the beginning of Act Two. Sporting a shoe-polish mustache, Hannibal Lecter-like leer, gravely Italian accent and atrociously overdone limp, Baierlein thumps across the stage hurling sexually suggestive epithets at Elliott, who eventually succumbs to Tod's advances and accompanies him to an offstage bedroom. In fact, Tod makes such an indelible impression on the haughty critic that, upon returning to Tony and Sally's rumpus room (a setting that's tastefully designed by Baierlein), Elliott's bow-legged gait resembles that of a tenderfoot who's been, well, uncomfortably thrust into the role of champion bull rider. The hilarious episode, which underscores Gurney's theme about culture vultures and their double-dealing ways, is also a proper comeuppance for a woman who, evidently signaling her predisposition to become a critic, once sent out "bitter vindictive valentines" to her grade-school classmates.
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In addition to Elliott's faux-regal portrayal of the despised reviewer, Baierlein's bravura turn is backed up by a fine supporting cast. Clenching her jaw with abject snobbishness one minute and loosening it slightly to convey blithe indifference the next, Diamond renders an understated portrait of Tony's dutiful (but just as publicity-hungry) spouse. And as the socially mobile neighbors (at one point, they both sport identical, monogrammed bathrobes), Field and Sarzin-Borrillo locate their characters' unabashed desire to be immortalized in newsprint. As Tony says, "They're easily capable of giving the suburbs a good name."
To be sure, the broad-stroked hijinks, though enjoyable, sometimes wear a little thin, especially midway through Act One when theatergoers are abundantly aware of the characters' glaring faults and are patiently waiting for the situation to unravel. A more gradual dissolve from character to caricature would likely resonate better--and hold the audience's attention over a few rough spots early on. Still, Baierlein and company's efforts humorously reflect what happens when the rules that govern the social register become the conventions that shape our understanding and appreciation of art.
The Perfect Party, through July 11 at Germinal Stage Denver, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108.