By Donna Herman
The dinner party from hell is a tried and true theatrical device. Playwright Torben Betts takes full advantage of its potential in Muswell Hill and delivers not only the requisite excruciatingly dysfunctional family dynamics, scathing looks at both well-heeled bleeding liberals, and down-at-the-heels revolutionaries, but a sobering shot at self-absorbed aging thespians as well. Ouch. And while he does it most entertainingly, with a rapier sharp wit, there’s much food for thought here.
The entire play takes place in the sleek, modern kitchen of Jess (Colleen Clinton) and Mat’s (Jason Alan Carvell) flat in fashionable Muswell Hill, North London. They are having a few people over for dinner and when the play starts, Mat is sitting in the kitchen at a table, working on his computer. It is the evening of Wednesday, January 13, 2010 – The day after a 7.0 earthquake left over a million Haitians homeless and killed an estimated 85,000. Jess walks into the kitchen looking at her phone and she says, not looking up, “You hear about this earthquake? (MAT continues typing.) The Caribbean. (MAT continues typing.) They say at least twenty thousand dead. (MAT continues typing.) It’s so hard to get your head around. (MAT continues typing, she texting. After a time she puts her phone away.) So?” And they proceed to have a conversation about what she’s wearing after Mat glances at her briefly.
It will come as no surprise to even the least discerning audience member after this brief introduction to the couple, that Jess and Mat’s relationship is not all it could be. Indeed, we’ll come to find out that everyone who is at this party tonight seems to be holding out for a better invitation, since nobody present can stop compulsively checking their phones and computers for something. Awkward moments are gotten round with the seemingly perfectly acceptable excuse of needing to check one’s um, gesture, gesture. Which frees the other up to do the same. Phew. No need to talk to that weirdo for a while.
Who could be either Jess’ old friend Karen (Lily Dorment), who is a compulsive talker who cannot stop talking about her dead husband Julian. And who cannot, of course, eat the monkfish stew or avocado and prawn that Jess is serving because she’s gone back to being a vegetarian, nor is she drinking alcohol these days and cannot stand mineral water. Or it could be Mat’s old college roommate, Simon (Richard Hollis), who has just moved back to England after bumming around the world since college. Anti-social, combatively leftist, broke and living with his mother, he sees a capitalist conspiracy around every corner. Or it could be Jess’ sister Annie (Sarah Street), a 23-year-old recovering alcoholic and drug addict who has clearly fallen off the ladder, and brought a surprise guest to dinner. Her new fiancé, Tony (John Pirkis), a 60-year-old Shakespeare director and acting teacher she met at an AA meeting. Tony, however, is not quite divorced from, or out of love with his wife yet, but Annie only sees what she wants to see. And what she wants to see is that somebody loves her and thinks she can be a star.
It’s a merry band, indeed, that wanders in and out of the kitchen between courses, seeking to impress and perhaps undress, one another. Director Shannon Patterson does a wonderful job of keeping the pace going nicely through some tricky scene shifts, and silences. She keeps the audience eagerly waiting for the next shoe to drop without ever letting our interest wander for a moment. And the cast rides the line nicely between comedy and drama. Standouts in this tightrope act are Richard Hollis as the self-righteously anti-social leftist who goes from amusing to abusive, and Sarah Street as Annie who starts out charmingly inept as she gives us her overblown Cleopatra audition, but devolves into pathetic, sloppy hysteria as she gets drunk. Colleen Clinton excels as the tightly controlled hostess, Jess, who must navigate the painful evening while not allowing her own secrets to overwhelm her.
MUSWELL HILL By Torben Betts, Directed by Shannon Patterson
WITH: Colleen Clinton (Jess); Jason Alan Carvell (Mat); Lily Dorment (Karen); Richard Hollis (Simon); Sarah Street (Annie); John Pirkis (Tony).
Scenic Design by Edward T. Morris; Lighting Design by Solomon Weisbard; Costume Design by Kristin Isola; Sound Design by Matt Otto; Prop Master/Vido Design by Addison Heeren; Production Stage Manager, Allison Raynes; Director of Marketing, Christine Cirker; Press Representative, Richard Hillman PR; Production Manager, Brent Winzek. Presented by The Barrow Group Theatre Company and The Pond Theatre Company at The Barrow Group Mainstage Theater, 312 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor through December 16th. For tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/34684