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Party Face

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 22, 2018

Hayley Mills and Gina Costigan
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

There is no doubt that the big draw for audiences at Party Face, Isobel Mahon's wobbly comic drama opening tonight at City Center Stage II, is the headline presence of Hayley Mills among the cast of five. You may need to adjust your recollection of "The Parent Trap" and "Pollyanna," those Disney films from the 1960s in which she starred, but you will assuredly recognize her. Unfortunately, there is little more to commend this feather-light play that only rarely moves beyond insipid sitcom mode even when, upon occasion, it attempts to deal with serious domestic issues.

Party Face, which has been performed in the playwright's home country of Ireland under a different title, (Boom?), is about a group of women who get together for drinks and nibbles at the suburban Dublin home of Mollie Mae (Gina Costigan) in celebration of the official unveiling of her new kitchen extension. What ensues during the course of the evening is an old-fashioned mix of gossip, backbiting, and true confessions.

The first guest to arrive, well before the designated time, is Ms. Mills, who plays Mollie Mae's overbearing mother, Carmel. She is the kind of mom we've seen often on television and in the movies, one who cannot let a positive comment leave her mouth without attaching it to an insult. ("Lovely flowers. Of course, in my day you never saw a lily outside of a funeral parlor.") She brings with her several containers of fancy canapés, as Mollie's crisps and hummus are clearly not good enough. She has even invited one of the guests herself in order to assure there will be someone there she'd want her daughter to associate with. That would be Chloe (Allison Jean White), Mollie's infinitely irritating neighbor who, like Carmel, is consumed by making certain everyone understands that she is wearing just the right designer clothes, eating just the right foods, and dropping just the right names.

After a hefty dose of Carmel and Chloe, both of them dripping with barely concealed sarcasm and snobbery, it's a breath of fresh air when Mollie Mae's sister Maeve (Brenda Meaney) shows up. Unlike the passive Mollie Mae, Maeve is well prepared to puncture their mother's condescending manner. When, for example, Carmel flourishes a glass of expensive wine that Chloe brought with her (because heaven forbid they be forced to drink the common table wine that Mollie Mae has provided), Maeve takes one sip and declares it tastes like "cat piss."

Rounding out the guest list is Bernie (Klea Blackhurst), a relatively new acquaintance of Mollie Mae's. Bernie describes herself as "manic-depressive-obsessive-compulsive" and spends most of the evening swaddling everything in sight, from decorative pillows to a bowl of crisps to Chloe's designer handbag, in plastic cling wrap. All the better to guard against the ever-present germs.

Like the snippy one-liners that fly about the room, these sight gags do little to contribute to the actual plot. Only in fits and starts do we learn that Mollie Mae has just been released from a mental hospital (that's where she met Bernie) after taking a sledgehammer to the newly-installed marble counter and then slitting her wrists. This may or may not be directly related to the fact that her husband of 16 years has walked out on her, but even so, we can certainly imagine that a lifetime of put-downs by her mother has not helped any. The other women, as well, have had to deal with personal problems that are briefly touched upon. But we are given only occasional tidbits of information that would make any of the goings-on break out of the bonds of wisecracks and sarcasm.

The cast members embrace their sketchy roles (if not always their hit-or-miss Irish accents) with all the style and grace they can muster. Allison Jean White, in particular, provides a totally committed over-the-top portrayal of the galling Chloe. But what the production sorely needs is to find a balance between a tone of dark (not silly) humor and its potentially insightful examination of the conflicts that have shaped these women's lives. Unfortunately, director Amanda Bearse, whose résumé includes performing the running role of Marcy D'Arcy in the sitcom "Married With Children," has not found the right tone or pacing to carry it off.

Party Face
Through April 8
Stage II at City Center, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: