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The Perfect Party 

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THE PERFECT PARTY

Northlight Theatre

When sex manuals started to become best-sellers, somehow it made a sad kind of sense. Despite their rhetoric, Americans have always betrayed a certain fear of spontaneity, of letting things (let alone people and even nations) take their course. It makes us hard on ourselves, this desire to reach perfection by following steps one through seven -- and hell on other people. Just how hellish is the subject of A.R. Gurney Jr.'s The Perfect Party, a very imperfect and brittle play so heavy-handed and mean spirited in its self-conscious mockery (it editorializes, then, trying to have it both ways, turns and spoofs its own pronouncements) that its wonderfully contrived cuteness quickly wears thin. Still, you have to love this play for the enemies it hopes to make; the only justification for its stereotypes is that they really do exist.

Believing that those who can don't teach, Tony is a professor of American literature who's resigned his position in order to pursue instant celebrity: this pretentious climber will give the perfect party, the publicity about which will make him overnight into a hot-shot party consultant and talk show guest. (As he says later, "Love me, hate me, but don't ignore me!") Tony's perfect party will test the American experiment. He's invited a Whitman-wide cross section of ethnic and sexual types. As Tony sees it, order will be imposed on American chaos, the guests will be as perfectly integrated as Seurat dots, the talk will wax brilliant -- until, like the perfect orgasm, the party "explodes and bathes everyone in a sweet afterglow."

To proclaim this perfection, Tony has invited Lois, a mordantly cynical, pundit-pompous ("I cannot be bought"), snoop-sister critic, who will, he hopes, write the review that puts him on the map. But Lois sees and remembers a lot more than Tony intends. His wife, Sally, for example, is furious at the outrageously expensive dress she's forced to wear ("It could pay for a good chunk of a CAT scanner"), thinks the fete is a suicidal mistake, but is desperate for Lois to give Tony the rave notices he doesn't deserve. Lois also discovers how many people were struck from the patronizing guest list because of presumed conversational inadequacies. When Wes and Wilma, two insecurities who happily made the cut, show up in bathrobe and nightie to say they can't come (they're frightened they won't be up to their own fantasies of becoming the life of the perfect party), Tony carefully coaches them on how to conform to his conversational guidelines, then soothes them by praising their dark melancholy "Jewishness," to him the perfect undercurrent to the party's hilarity. Wes is delighted ("I can explore my Jewishness in front of everyone!"), and the urologist and his speech therapist wife run home to change.

But the party, once launched runs afoul of Lois, who condemns it for lacking a "sense of danger," the sort of threat that runs through all the best shindigs (the Titanic ballroom as the iceberg approached, a Paris salon in early July 1789, Nero's uninsured guests). When Lois threatens to walk out, Tony desperately promises her some guaranteed risk -- he'll invite his satanic twin brother, Tod (as in "death"), a limping, Italian-accented destroyer who "kills moments and annihilates atmosphere" -- and who has a much bigger penis. Her faith in the party restored, Lois stays on to have an inevitable, unsatisfactory sexual encounter with "Tod" (alias Tony) that Sally is tactless enough to witness. Lois flounces out to trash the party (she rates it 7 out of 17) in a television review that surrealistically takes place two minutes after she slams the door. Sally confronts Tony over his risking even adultery for a good press, and he suddenly comes to his senses. Yes, he stiffly sermonizes, my problem ("the party as power trip") is the same as America's, a middle-aged compulsion to expect the rest of the world to dance to our shibboleths (free enterprise, cultural imperialism, representative democracy) mingled with an intractable unwillingness to accept people as they are. Sick of their own artificiality, Wes and Wilma return, only to discover that Tony and Sally are willing to try it all over again, this time with the guests just, gasp, being themselves. Even Lois shows up -- and this time she too has a ball.

So why did we have to wait two hours for them to have fun? All I know is Perfect Party does achieve excellence in one respect: it's the perfect example of Chinese takeout theater; an hour later you'll be hungry for another play. Unlike The Dining Room, where the setting unlocked a richly varied story, Gurney's skewering of the American lust for unearned fame at any price and of a cultural intolerance that leaves little room for eccentricity would make a clever (because brief) Second City sketch. Instead, it provides a witty and intriguing first act in which the premises (the party and "Tod") are elaborately set up, and a disappointing second act, as the Tod joke (with its obligatory dirty puns) turns satire into farce and both into ironic moralizing. A one-joke two-acter.

What's poison to most plays Party fairly thrives on. As crisp, plastic, and arch as the script requires, Nick Faust's Northlight Theatre staging of this party of fools is, like these characters, as fatuously phony as possible. It's perfect. Blithely blind to his own wall-to-wall manipulations, Jack McLaughlin-Gray as Tony is no Prince Orlovsky party giver ("Chacun a son gout!"), he's a literally two-faced SOB, the perfect American antihero (particularly as the loathsome-Lothario brother) until he improbably wises up in the smarmily happy ending. With cunning concentration, Camilla Hawk as Tony's all-suffering liberal wife never drops for a second the absurd seriousness of her precious part. Spouting non sequiturs and pontificating as if her every thought were the clincher in a column, Lucy Childs's hard-boiled Lois ("We live in a narcissistic age and it would be foolish not to take advantage of that") is the most obnoxious journalist since Nashville's Geraldine Chaplin. A self-appointed standard setter, Lois becomes the dreaded incarnation of every "life-style" article you ever forced yourself to read. Simulating the thankless caricatures of Wilma and Wes, Barbara Gaines and Fredric Stone make only too much of these suburban ciphers with their live-by-numbers cultural conformity and their anesthetized ethnicity. In the end, as if to re-prove the law of diminishing returns, the harder all five actors worked, the more the desire to scream out "I get the point already!" curdled in my brain.

The ever-so-trendy living room is by Bil Mikulewicz, the incriminating costumes by Virgil Johnson, and the (to Lois) inadequate lighting by Dan Kotlowitz.

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