A.R. Gurney is both a gentle man and a gentleman. He's the product of an upper-crust WASP family, an echelon of society he's delineated with irony, wistfulness and affection in many early plays, including The Dining Room. But he's also interested in politics, as is clear in 1992's The Fourth Wall, a charged and hilarious comedy that gives vent to Gurney's concerns while never departing from the upper-middle-class setting where he feels at home.
Written in 1986 during the Reagan years, The Perfect Party, currently at the Playwright Theatre, feels transitional, as if Gurney is trying to work out the right dramatic form for his political ideas and hasn't quite found it. Still, the play manages to be both funny and thought-provoking, offering several thematic threads that are interesting to tease out and examine.
Tony is a middle-aged professor, steeped in American history and literature, who quits his job in pursuit of a single overwhelming passion: to host the perfect party. He has invited Lois, a critic from a "major New York newspaper," to witness and review this triumph. Impossibly slender and stalking her way across the stage in piercingly high heels, Trina Magness's Lois is a pen stroke, a black-and-white sketch, a New Yorker cartoon come to life. She's also hard and armored, ambitious, narcissistic and irrational -- doubtless Gurney's revenge not only on every critic who ever panned his work, but on the very function of criticism itself. As you can imagine, Lois's presence ups the anxiety quotient quite a bit.
The Perfect Party
The Playwright Theatre, 2119 East 17th Avenue
Presented by the Playwright Theatre and Spark Theatre Works through March 17, 303-499-0383, www.playwrighttheatre.com.
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Tony's wife, Sally, has reservations about his project, and he attempts to alternately coax and bully her out of them. He's also determined that his old friends and neighbors, Wes and Wilma, help with the festivities, and gives them detailed instructions about what they're to wear and say at the party.
Gurney weaves together literary references, comments on the history of theater and its conventions (Sally speaks of hubris; Lois condemns an "implausible development") and socio-political analogies. He utilizes absurdism, genteel comedy, melodrama, farce and serious analysis, occasionally flashing a Wildean epigram. The play's best scene -- and certainly its most raucous -- could have come straight from an old Peter Sellers movie. There are many hilarious and incisive observations about the way people behave at parties, but the script also reminds us of the human animal's primal need for company and celebration, and the fact that the beginnings of religion, music, art and culture are found in the simple and ubiquitous act of coming together.
The ugly and coercive side of Tony's perfectionism is specifically compared to America's determination to remake other countries in her image -- a theme that has obvious relevance now, over twenty years after The Perfect Party was written. Still, the play feels flat in places. That's partly the fault of the script, and partly because director Brenda Cook and her cast haven't taken complete control of it. Verl Hite, who plays Tony, and Pam Clifton, who's Sally, are sympathetic but don't seem to have fully plumbed their roles, and they're not convincing as a professor and his wife. (And there should be far more books in Tony's study, and they shouldn't look as if they'd been purchased by the yard by a real-estate agent seeking to make a house look more upscale.) Amy Rome's Wilma and David Russell's Wes are too broadly played, though Rome, with her wild hair and huge, black-rimmed eyes, is pretty entertaining. Fortunately, Magness weaves through the action like a silken (and sometimes fraying) black stitch, providing the focus and energy that hold the evening together.
And I do like the ending, in which Sally describes a different kind of party -- a messy, happy event where the guests arrive carrying their own ethnic dishes to share and everyone pitches in at the end to clean up. It evokes two key virtues of the WASP upper crust at its best: tolerance and kindness.