The booze flows freely in “Abigail’s Party.” So do the barbs, in Mike Leigh’s raucous black comedy about five unhappy people at a cocktail party in 1970s Britain.
Now playing in a flawed but often wickedly funny revival directed by Amy Glazer, the new San Francisco Playhouse production takes the audience on a long night’s journey into marital discord.
The chief perpetrator in this comedy of bad manners is Beverly, a hostess with a decidedly hostile edge, a heavy hand on the gin bottle, a backlog of grievances against her husband, Laurence, and a gift for saying exactly whatever will make her guests most uncomfortable.
Angela, a nurse, and her husband, Tony, are the first to arrive, with Susan, a recently divorced neighbor whose 15-year-old daughter is hosting the title party next door, following soon after.
Beverly welcomes them in ’70s style – Bill English’s excellent set (lit by Dan Reed) is replete with earth tones, the stereo plays hits of the disco era (sound by Brendan Aanes), and costumes (by Tatjana Genser), are a riot of prints and plaids.
Beverly doesn’t waste time. Like a shark in a halter dress, she stays in constant motion, delving into sensitive subjects, pouring drinks until everyone’s sloshed, belittling Laurence and, in moments reminiscent of Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” putting the moves on Tony.
Leigh, who’s best known as a film director (“Secrets and Lies,” “Topsy Turvy”), makes his points about middle-class malaise early on; each couple is incompatible, and Susan, the odd woman out, is lonely and depressed.
The situation gets darker – and funnier – as it goes, until an unexpected event brings the party to an abrupt close.
“Abigail’s Party” isn’t a great play, but Leigh has a knack for capturing the offbeat moments of awkwardness and revelation between people. Glazer’s actors, despite lapses in the British accents, turn in strong performances.
SF Playhouse artistic director Susi Damilano misses a measure of Beverly’s slash-and-burn heartlessness, but she gets the character’s blunt edge and overt sex appeal.
Remi Sandri’s aloof Laurence simmers with pent-up rage. Allison Jean White scores as the mousy Angela, and Patrick Kelly Jones is a comically taciturn Tony. And Julia Brothers is outstanding as the prim, weary Susan. Her startled looks and impeccable comic timing remain eloquent, even in this party’s rowdiest moments.