What happens when mom comes early to assist with your party, takes control, then transforms the evening into a fireworks session? Party Face by Isobel Mahon explores the hysterical heights and depths of mother/daughter relationships. As interactions increasingly spring “over the top,” mother, daughters, and guests employ artful pretense to circumvent emotional pitfalls. However, their attempts to mask their deepest feelings with “party faces” eventually shatter and various unsettling truths explode to promote healing, for all but one.
Notably, in her clever play Mahon examines how women’s dissimulations most often self-destruct with humorous results. Indeed the quips, witticisms, retorts, and hi-jinks cut deeply until the truth drips out like juice from a lemon. The result is equally acerbic and identifiable. For who does not have foibles? The charms of humanity lie in our humility and grace to admit our flaws, and eventually, all of the characters in the play except mother Carmel (the gobsmacking Hayley Mills) lay themselves bare. As Carmel, self-satisfied, self-possessed, “hangs out in all her glory” we see beyond her posturing, and by the conclusion threads of forgiveness channel through all the characters save perhaps the most slick and sly glamour queen, Chloe.
At the outset we gradually discover the atypical occasion for this laid back celebration. Daughter Mollie (Gina Costigan), intends to decompress with friends after a psychiatric hospital recuperation. Do expectations ever meet their targets? Mollie’s longed-for chill session with friends ends before it begins. And Carmel becomes the catalyst for the percussive and memorable events that explode into an evening of woe for the characters and humorous entertainment for the audience.
As the effervescent, well-meaning, and officious Carmel, Hayley Mills guides us with grand timing to each quip as she competitively chides and bests Mollie with style and grace. From her reactions, we understand Mollie patiently abides with her mother’s stroking her own ego while dunning Mollie’s. Costigan and Mills’s winsome portrayals allow us to forgive Carmel and empathize with Mollie. Their acting skills temper their characterizations just enough. Thus, we do not come to dislike Carmel for her controlling pushiness. Nor do we feel exasperation for Mollie’s passivity. Mothers and daughters display love in their various ways and we “get” that Carmel desperately needs to feel young and trendy. So Mollie loves her, and she looks past the behavior, understanding her mother’s love beneath the posturing.
On the other hand, daughter Maeve (Brenda Meaney serves up a vitality and crisp tartness that satisfies), provides the counterpoint to Mollie and Carmel. Her curt, precise irony slashes through Carmel’s “mothering” and vanity. However, she never retains a nasty bitterness. From their interactions we realize this has been the way amongst them for years. And the difference between Mollie’s and Maeve’s approach to their mother refreshes and settles our understanding. Theirs is a unique matrix of mother and daughters.
Conflicts abound in Mahon’s comedy. First, Carmel unwittingly invites the too bubbly, too sugary-to-be believed neighbor Chloe to join the party without informing Mollie. Allison Jean White may have shined even more in this funny role if her enunciation (the night I saw her), was clearer and brought down a tone on the vocal register. When White’s portrayal of Chloe modulated in Act II, her performance strengthened and the comedy heightened. More’s the pity for she has some of the funniest lines in the first act.
When Sister Maeve follows Chloe’s entrance, Mahon has prepared her set up speech beautifully. Thus, as Maeve deflates Chloe’s pride in her son who, in reality, is a terror, we mentally applaud. Indeed, Chloe’s smug, pretentious, “do-gooder” attitude stinks of hypocrisy. And as we see the arc of development, we note that Mahon has fashioned the characterizations and humorous scenes with appreciable adroitness toward the “grand reveal.”
As Maeve conflicts with Chloe surreptitiously at first, then explosively later on, both turn up the heat. Then physical circumstances rush the action to a satisfying end of the act. But not before the eccentric, O.C.D, germophobic Bernie (Klea Blackhurst), Mollie’s friend from hospital makes her entrance to mechanically save the day. As the harmlessly quirky, wacko, “laugh out loud” Bernie, Klea Blackhurst hits the bullseye in contributing humor with a “matter-of-fact” delivery that kills it. Surely, director Amanda Bearse has successfully corralled her actors to seamlessly work this ensemble piece with joy and verve.
The play/s themes resound for all of us. In Act II, as tensions mount, each of the women’s flaws and insecurities roil the waters. Finally, untold secrets spill over, some with boiling animosity. Carmel’s reaction typifies her generation. Maeve’s sparks a mature understanding. And earthbound Mollie embraces herself and her personal situation with a rebounding self-love. Truth telling to family creates an atmosphere where healing can begin.
Ironically, Chloe provides the trending meditative intervention which humorously exacerbates the conflict between she and Maeve. And when, the furies arrive, we wonder what next? However, the power to dispel the rancor lies with the humorous Bernie who knows best. Chloe leaves “tail between her legs.” And the arc of events simmer down to a heartfelt conclusion. Throughout the play, despite the characters’ snide prickliness, underhanded acerbity and the eventual explosion into a cat fight, deep affections also surface between family members. And hope peaks out from the clouds at the end.
Isobel Mahon’s comedy, fired up by an excellent cast, well directed by Amanda Bearse, leaves the audience rollicking with laughter. But for the enunciation issues (or perhaps acoustics problems or my off hearing that night), the must-see production delights. And the mesmerizing Hayley Mills, better than ever, is a smashing thrill to see.
Kudos go to Jeff Ridenour (scenic design), Lara De Bruijn (costume design), Joyce Liao (lighting design), Damien Figueras (sound design).
Party Face at City Center Stage II (131 W 55th Street), runs with one intermission until 8 April. You can pick up tickets HERE.