Arts & Culture » Theater

Party Person

Artichoke of a play unfolds layer by layer


A.R. Gurney is not a celebrity. Mention his name, and a face doesn't promptly come to mind. Although he is one of America's most produced playwrights, and one of its most amusing, only rarely has he written plays that were intended to be produced on Broadway. In a surprisingly seditious way, most of Gurney's plays are too inflammatory for Broadway. He is constantly saying things that those who can afford to pay top-dollar ticket prices don't want to hear (things such as "You are irrelevant").

It's not only what he says but how he says it that distinguishes Gurney from other dramatists. No two of his plays employ quite the same structure. In what Gurney has described as an "obsessional playfulness," he is ever experimenting with inventive new approaches to storytelling that poke and prod at staid theatrical complacency.

The Perfect Party, which is being staged by the West End Players Guild, is quintessential Gurney: substantive in content, satirical in tone, exploratory in style.

The plot -- which is akin to an extended New Yorker cartoon -- concerns one man's maniacal pursuit of perfection. Tony is a former professor of American studies who seeks perfection in all aspects of life. Now, despite the foreboding of his skeptical wife, he is embarking on a new career as a party consultant. First, though, he intends to host an elegant black-tie affair so perfectly mounted that it will be reviewed by a critic from the arts-and-leisure section of "a major New York newspaper." If Tony has to mount the critic, too, in order to elicit a rave, so be it.

But this wicked plot is only the first level at work here. In Gurney's deft hands, Tony's party becomes a metaphor for the play itself. Who other than Gurney would have the wry audacity to create the character of an unsparing theater reviewer who constantly comments on The Perfect Party as it is unfolding? By placing the most pungent critic onstage, Gurney has rendered his play reviewer-proof.

Now add into this equation still another analogy. Tony's "huge and grandiose" party is also a metaphor for America itself. The comparison is not attractive.

Gurney has always been offended by bullies. It makes no difference whether that bully is a spoiled product of the ruling class or a powerful nation trying to impose its foreign policy abroad. When his wife complains that "this impulse to control [and] to shape ... permeates the fabric of this country," Tony lamely concedes, "All I've done tonight is take American idealism and reveal it for the dark, destructive dream it really is."

This kind of didactic writing is atypical of Gurney. More often, his social criticism is handled with such finesse that it could be served up on a doily. So what gives here? Is he, in fact, lampooning the stridency of some activist liberals? Or is he so intent on conveying his theme that he's willing to hammer it out in capital letters? Anything is possible in this artichoke of a play that unfolds layer by layer. But whatever the author's line-by-line motives, it is remarkable to realize that The Perfect Party is seventeen years old; this is a play for today.

Unhappily, this fast-moving community-theater production is almost sabotaged by -- of all things -- a tuxedo. As Tony, Stephen Logan spends the evening swimming in a tux at least two sizes too large. It is utterly defeating for a character who pursues the best of everything to be seen in such ill-fitting attire, especially when everyone else onstage is dressed -- there's no other phrase for it -- to perfection. It's a curious thing about stage clothes. An actor wears a character the same way he wears a costume: Either it fits or it doesn't. Surely, if Logan were garbed in something more suitable, he'd have a better shot at discovering the truth of his character -- to wit, that Tony was not written to be likable.

But the play itself is very likable. Gurney has an authentic satirical voice. At heart he is an impassioned iconoclast, yet The Perfect Party is an acutely civil antidote to strident and explosive times.

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