Highbrow Jocularity

Live Theatre Workshop has an inviting production.

Shakespeare wrote that all the world's a stage, but in 1986 playwright A.R. Gurney decided that the world is really one big party. At least that's what he wants you to think he decided. He sets up his absurdist play The Perfect Party as a metaphor for America's overweening ambition to control all human interaction and entertainment. And yet the setup is itself so intentionally overbearing and self-conscious--the characters keep talking about their party "crystallizing the hopes and dreams of an entire nation"--that Gurney is actually satirizing pretentious, message-laden alternative theater.

The Perfect Party careens through references to literature, the Bible, classical mythology and Jewish ritual, and it's an absolute hoot for liberal intellectuals able to laugh at themselves. All three of us.

Live Theatre Workshop invites us to the festivities, where we're greeted by Tony, a professor of American studies who has begun seeking perfection in every aspect of his life. He decides to present the perfect party, along the way launching a new career as a party consultant. Key to his success is Lois, a critic from "a major New York newspaper"; if she gives Tony's party a favorable review, his career is assured and his obsession with control and perfection is vindicated. What this guy needs isn't just a party, it's a rave.

But Tony must contend with his skeptical wife, Sally, and enlist his best friends, Wilma and Wes, to help guide the party to a climax that sounds more than vaguely sexual; in both cases, you're liable to wind up with stains on your clothes.

Lois, however, grows restive, and in a desperate effort to introduce an attractive element of danger and chaos into Lois' evening, Tony impersonates an evil twin brother, Tod. Perhaps if Tod propositions Lois, whose fierceness is in part a manifestation of her sexual appetite ("Since I'm from New York," she declares, "I'm compelled to be brutal"), she'll be inspired to write a positive review. Talk about party favors.

Two things elevate this play from silly sitcom banality. First is Gurney's assumption that his audience is culturally literate. When Sally complains that Tony is too much the power-tripping paterfamilias unaware what a ridiculous figure he cuts, Lois observes, "You must feel like you're living in the middle of a bad translation of Molière!" It's a funny line not only because it's apt (and Gurney doesn't ruin it with an explanation), but because it's so typical of these characters' frequent and unlikely literary allusions. They become hilarious because they're so out of place.

The second thing this play has going for it is that the characters work so hard and so self-consciously to position themselves as a metaphor for America that it becomes clear that Gurney isn't really making fun of American obsessions; he's making fun of theatrical obsessions, the burden of significance and relevance in a suburban five-character play. Gurney is subverting the very subversiveness of alternative theater.

As directed by James Mitchell Gooden, Bruce Bieszki's Tony is a softer, nicer fellow than one might expect. If Bieszki were more arrogant and domineering, his relation to, among other figures, Molière's Monsieur Jourdain would be more exact. Instead, he's the more hapless type found in certain works by Oscar Wilde, one of Tony's idols. As such, he becomes a more sympathetic figure whom, despite his foibles, the audience doesn't want to end badly.

As Lois, Kristi Loera comes off like The Music Man's Harold Hill turned hard-boiled New York journalist. It's a deft characterization, as are those of Jeremy Thompson and Koryie Harvey as goofy Wes and Wilma. As Sally, Lisa Cook is not quite so precisely centered socially, but she easily holds her own in the brainy zaniness.

The play's most disturbing element is Gurney's conclusion that things would be so much better if we'd just lower our standards. Surely he doesn't want us to trust this judgment; after all, low standards have brought us network television and the Bush Administration--loud, desperate, empty parties that ought to be raided as public nuisances.

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