REVIEW: of Party Face, a new comedy by Isobel Mahon, at New York City’s City Center; and
INTERVIEW: with star Hayley Mills, and others.
The ladies are getting their Irish up at New York’s City Center, where playwright Isobel Mahon’s new comedy, Party Face, is running through April 8.
Set in an affluent suburb of modern-day Dublin, the play “features five strong women” (as Morgan Sills, one of its producers, explains), and the New York production brings the party to roaring life with ensemble work from five ideally cast actresses, including a luminous, hilarious and invaluable turn by veteran screen, stage and television star Hayley Mills as the redoubtable matriarch, Carmel.
“There’s a lot going on,” producer Sills comments of the play’s deceptive comedic structure, “about the lies we all tell to keep up appearances, and how those lies get exposed.” And, indeed, while Party Face may caper to the rhythms of sitcom, it also manages to smuggle in a wealth of poetry beneath the laughter, and even prompt an eleventh-hour tear to leaven its welter of smiles.
But of course it does: it’s Irish!
The play is set in the gleaming and newly remodeled – if oddly aseptic – living room of Mollie Mae, a well-off Dublin housewife recently returned home after a “rough patch”: code for her institutionalization after an enigmatic breakdown that proves to have been as much a crisis of soul as of compos mentis.
But – party face on! – tonight is slated for a low-key, girls-only get-together, meant to inaugurate Mollie Mae’s reclamation of normalcy.
Enter Mollie Mae’s mother, Carmel, in the person of actress Hayley Mills. Whirling, fluttering, meddling, a font of nouveau riche dicta, Carmel is a hyperkinetic maternal threshing machine as she rips on Mollie Mae’s makeup, couture, and culinary tastes (Carmel has brought her own haute cuisine “nibbles” to put out for the evening’s guests), all the while seemingly indifferent to (or willfully ignorant of) the existential ordeal through which Mollie Mae has recently staggered. Mills limns the very portrait of a mater termagant terrible in pint-sized Celtic pixie guise, while managing the role’s subtle modulations to prove, ultimately, achingly poignant as this mother to beat all mothers.
Dark? Hardly. Rather, playwright Isobel Mahon, who has forged multiple careers in her native Ireland as an actress, a writer, and a psychotherapist, appears to have curried her aggregated acumen in all three specialties to craft a work of warm insight, and sure theatrical empathy for the silliness that can frolic on the cusp of calamity. It’s a quality of Mahon’s writing that, among other things, drew Hayley Mills to Party Face to begin with.
“We’ve all found that in the middle of something awful – some drama or some terrible row among people who love each other – people are unwittingly funny,” Mills observes. “And I think Isobel captures that.” And, yes, as Party Face‘s guests assemble, and chardonnay-fueled interrogations ensue (about Mollie Mae’s marriage, the whereabouts of her absent husband, the ugly secret behind that unsightly gouge in the shiny new kitchen counter); as disclosures multiply about rivalries, deceptions, and infidelities, and the evening mounts into a grand farrago of cage-match, grudge-fest, and catfight, so does an intoxicating and authentic madcap energy burgeon, fully bearing out Mills’ point. It’s very funny.
The Irish Tiger
“I thought I’d have to rewrite a lot of things for the American production,” says playwright Mahon. “But, as it turns out, there weren’t as many as I might have expected.” Still, “this isn’t the Ireland of rural pubs and cottages that one usually sees onstage,” Mahon notes. “But it’s an Ireland that is very real – with sudden wealth and social climbing.”
The play’s original Irish title was Boom? – a deliciously quizzical and polyvalent pun, referring at one and the same time to Mollie Mae’s psychic meltdown, as well as the literal sledgehammer blow she eventually confesses to having administered to that mutilated kitchen counter to protest her life’s materialistic sterility, and – in the larger social context – the darker consequences of the rapid boom of the Irish economy from about 1997 to 2007, a phenomenon known in Irish Gaelic as “An Tíogar Ceilteach” or the “Irish Tiger”.
“People were suddenly busy building extensions, and putting helipads on rooftops without even owning a helicopter,” says Mills. “It was insane.”
It’s an aspect of recent Irish experience with which many Americans may be unfamiliar. Yet, paradoxically, it may be precisely the element of Irish specificity that accounts for Party Face‘s American relatability. After all, much of the stress under which the play’s characters labor originates in a trauma of sudden affluence, the vertigo of precipitate upward mobility characterized in America as a desperation to “keep up with the Joneses.” It’s that syndrome of material concupiscence and competitiveness that Mahon dramatizes in Party Face through Carmel’s new-minted social pretensions, as well as the tragic spiritual anomie suddenly seizing Mollie Mae.
Mahon also manages her thematic effects with a technique akin to fugue-like musicality. Much of the amusing, catty, and freewheeling exchanges at Mollie Mae’s party may seem at first blush to center on banalities – clothes, makeup, Botox, dietary fads. But, gradually, we discern the cantus firmus below the nattering obligato lines. Concepts of design, decor, and architecture are asserted and restated (that remodeled kitchen, that new shopping center going up across the way which may obscure Mollie Mae’s view of the sea, that “anatomically correct” topiary bush in the backyard) which finally focus the play’s grounding theme – “structure.” Party Face, in its antic seriousness, constitutes at base a colloquy on the perpetual problematics of structure itself: the human need for it, and the sometimes fateful human impulse to escape it.
Her American Cousins
Actress Hayley Mills has, of course, enjoyed an acclaimed career from childhood on. She was 1960’s Special Oscar winner for her performance as the ever-upbeat young Pollyanna, and starred in a string of other golden classics – dramas and comedies alike – including The Parent Trap, The Chalk Garden, The Trouble with Angels, and Whistle Down the Wind (based on her own mother’s novel of the same name). Mills is also among that rare company of players who have successfully negotiated a graceful transition from juvenile stardom to mature leads while pulling off the hat-trick of sustained sanity, celebrity, and career longevity.
And, while she is a native Briton (her father was esteemed British actor Sir John Mills) and was brought up “in the good old Church of England,” Mills has spent much time in the United States, and boasts a proud, complementary ancestry derived from her mother, actress and novelist Mary Hayley Bell.
“There’s a lot of American and Irish in me,” Mills says. “On my mother’s side I have antecedents from Ireland, and some of the early ones went to America, back before the Civil War. And I’m very proud of the fact that [some of them] were missionaries. ” Indeed, among Mills’ Irish émigré ancestors was a great-grandfather who married Mills’ American great-grandmother. Together, they traveled to Asia, to do missionary work.
“It was an extraordinary historical repeat,” says Mills, “that when I was playing Anna in The King and I” – a role Mills has played to acclaim in numerous international productions – “I was actually following in the footsteps of my great-grandmother, who went to China and then to Thailand with her husband, and taught the children in the royal palace in Bangkok!”
Thus, from both personal authority and inherited affinity, Mills affectionately opines that “I’ve always felt that New Yorkers are more like the Irish than any other part of the country – they’re volatile, love talking and laughing and drinking, they’re very social, and have tremendous energy.”
Point well taken. Certainly, a city with Patrick as its patron saint, and which celebrates his feast with more gusto and economic stimulus than anywhere else in the world is probably a very Party Face place.
Shall We Join the Ladies?
Without disclosing too much of the rollicking action or plot line, it should be noted that Party Face offers finely detailed comic portraits of all five of its characters. To the collective credit of playwright Isobel Mahon, director Amanda Bearse, and the players themselves, an audience member cannot help but experience ever-shifting opinions about and advocacies of each of the onstage party-goers as a performance unfolds.
Mollie Mae’s complex mix of surface gelidity and submerged psychic turmoil is made riveting by actress Gina Costigan, while her mordant and deadpan sister, Maeve, is played with cool comic understatement by a lithe and feline Brenda Meaney.
Mollie Mae’s ostentatious and magniloquent New-Age neighbor, Chloe – a patent Dublin specimen of a genus Tom Wolfe once dubbed “the social x-ray” – is played to riotous perfection by Allison Jean White. And Mollie Mae’s former mental hospital roommate, Bernie – an obsessive-compulsive mysophobe with a heart of gold – is rendered astonishingly credible, lovable and, yes, profound by a delightful Klea Blackhurst.
Finally, Hayley Mills evinces sure and bounteous comic resource, as well as seasoned emotional depth, as a damaged woman working at full throttle to deny the past, and remake her present. There is both lithe, birdsong lyricism in her characterization, as well as classical sonority. Mills’ Carmel seems at times tinged with the fevered romanticism of Amanda Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie, while her final sequence – a veritable prose arietta – echoes something of the haunted doom of Mary Tyrone from Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Director Amanda Bearse (best known for playing neighbor Marcy D’Arcy on the popular sitcom “Married… with Children”) has brought inventive slapstick and fleet comic pacing to the proceedings (Bearse will also be joining the production for the final week of its run, replacing Klea Blackhurst as Bernie from April 2 through 8); while designer Jeff Ridenour’s set is a sleekly beautiful and spot-on architectural CliffsNotes, chockful of subtle thematic commentary and visual character clues.
With three more weeks left in its currently scheduled run, why not sustain the Saint Patrick’s Day holiday mood, put on your own party face, and get in on the fun, frolic and donnybrook mayhem amidst the kibitzing and combative ladies of Party Face?
Sure and you’ll be happy you did.
Party Face, a comedy by Isobel Mahon, directed by Amanda Bearse, produced by Robert Driemeyer, Morgan Sills and Jan Warner and starring Hayley Mills, plays at City Center’s Stage II (130 W 56th Street in New York City) through April 8, 2018; tickets may be purchased, and more information found, at https://www.nycitycenter.org/pdps/party-face/