‘Perfect Party’ an amusing, uneven take on the Age of American Narcissism


“The Perfect Party” features, from left, Sally Kimberly as Wilma, Malcolm Sanford as Wes and Chuck Lipsig as Tony, at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, June 20, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 at 1:33 p.m.

Oscar Wilde is the perfect guest for the perfect party; witty, caustic and incisive.

Facts

‘The Perfect Party’

What: A.R. Gurney comedy about an English teacher who plans to throw the perfect party and invites a New York City critic to review it
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through June 30
Where: Acrosstown Repertory Theatre, 619 S. Main St.
Tickets: $12, $10 for students, seniors, educators and military personnel; tickets are half-price for tonight’s preview.
Info: 505-0868

“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,” he once mused. And Tony, American studies professor turned perfect party host, could certainly relate to that.

As it happens, Wilde is talked about quite a bit in “The Perfect Party,” A.R. Gurney’s acerbic ode to Reagan-era hubris and to academic and journalistic pomposity.

And Wilde looms especially large throughout the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre’s current production of Gurney’s 1986 play in the form of two photographs strategically positioned on a bookshelf near center stage.

In the first photo, Wilde looks bored. In the second, he looks impatient. These are exactly the expressions one might expect of a perfect guest who finds himself inexplicably trapped at a party that doesn’t quite live up to its billing.

This play is an amusing but uneven take on the Age of American Narcissism. The dialogue is clever if not laugh-out-loud, and the Acrosstown’s actors do a credible job with the material they have been handed.

But perhaps “The Perfect Party” is a period piece well past its perishable date (how’s that for journalistic pomposity?). In a post-9/11 age when America seems to be struggling just to maintain its identity on the world stage, this trivial pursuit of perfection seems a quaint relic of an earlier age.

And when the actors are required to repeatedly point out the parallels between Tony’s dogged pursuit of the perfect party and America’s determination to project perfection “at home and abroad,” subtlety pretty much flies out the window.

That said, these actors deserve credit for soldering on.

Chuck Lipsig projects a nice mix of bravado and desperation as Tony, the protagonist prof who, disenchanted with his failure to educate the “perfect class,” decides to stake his future on producing a flawless party. Lipsig plays pompous from the sublime to the silly, especially when Tony assumes the persona of a nonexistent twin brother, “A dangerous man,” he intones darkly, a man who “kills moments” and “annihilates moods.”

Christina Palacio as Lois, a critic for a “major New York newspaper,” wears her studied arrogance like a second skin. Asked to critique a party out in the “provinces,” Palacio is heavy-handed with her publicity-starved host but surprisingly vulnerable when she has to be. Her air of self-importance notwithstanding, Lois admits in a weak moment that she is just one missed scoop away from “covering church socials and bowling tournaments.”

Malcolm Sanford and Sally Kimberly are a hoot as Wes and Wilma, the anxiety-ridden neighbors who worry about not being able to hold up their end of the perfect party deal. Think an irascible Jack Nicholson playing a Jewish urologist and Edith Bunker as his speech-therapist wife. From this dynamic duo come the best perfect party tip of the evening: Don’t try to move the conversation from cats to urban renewal. “A lousy transition,” growls Wes.

And talk about soldering on. Rachel Wayne was the Acrosstown’s stage manager before she was drafted at the last minute to play Tony’s wife, Sally, after the actress cast in that role, Tiffany Jakowczuk, became ill. On opening night Wayne carried a clipboard to help recall her lines. But wearing her sequined party dress and Vassar-grad air of incredulity, stand-in Sally makes the role her own. Announcing that their perfect party has “crested,” she gasps, awestruck, “it’s like the beginning of civilization itself.”

One can only imagine what Oscar Wilde would say to that.

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