by Brian Scott Lipton
There can be little argument that Isobel Mahon’s “Party Face,” now at New York City Center Stage II, plays out more like a very special episode of some TV sitcom than any sort of truly illuminating family drama. (Perhaps that’s not altogether surprising as it is directed by Amanda Bearse, who spent 11 years as Marcy on the sitcom “Married with Children”.) But it’s equally inarguable that the work provides some good laughs, relatable situations, and, above all, the chance for five actresses – led by the still-radiant Hayley Mills – to dig their teeth into this so-so material, all of which adds up to a watchable evening of theater.
Mills, still gorgeous at 71, delivers a truly authentic-feeling performing as Carmel, a vain older woman seemingly more concerned with primping, preening and selecting absurdly fancy “nibbles” than the feelings of her two daughters: the obviously troubled Mollie Mae (a fine Gina Costigan) – who is hosting a small party to show off the remodeling of her kitchen– and the sharp-tongued Maeve (a disarming Brenda Meaney), who displays an air of remarkable self-confidence mixed with just a dash of bitterness from having divorced her husband.
From the moment she arrives, Carmel constantly digs at her two daughters, especially Mollie Mae’s casual appearance and choice of party food, which seems slightly cruel once we realize that Mollie Mae was recently released from a psychiatric hospital. Of course, we also sense that Carmel has her own demons, which naturally emerge before the play is over.
Making matters worse, Carmel has chosen to invite Mollie Mae’s obnoxious downstairs neighbor, Chloe (convincingly portrayed by Allison Jean White), to the bash. All smiles, hair, false bonhomie and pointless platitudes, Chloe is the kind of woman that men are probably drawn to and smart women immediately distrust. That Carmel treats her as the daughter she would seem to prefer hardly helps the already tense situation.
The final guest, who arrives just before the end of Act One, is Bernie (a sublime Klea Blackhurst), Mollie Mae’s former hospital roommate, who arrives with a virtual suitcase of neuroses coupled with some surprising common sense and a true gift of empathy. (In addition, Blackhurst’s way with a punchline is pretty much unparalleled.) Bernie’s strengths all come in handy when the party starts to disintegrate, both literally and figuratively, during the second act – where the tone of the work shifts rather a bit too sharply for its own good.
If you’re a typically busy New Yorker, you can turn down an invitation to this party without much regret, but those wishing to see Mills in a rare stage appearance are indeed urged to RSVP.
Photos: Jeremy Daniel
New York City Center, Stage I, 131 West 55 Street, 212 581-1212 www.partyfaceplay.com Thru April 8