Actors Repertory Theatre

at the Chicago Dramatists Workshop

One of the more disgusting developments of the 80s has been the return, with a vengeance, of society-page journalism–all those long, dull lists of which celebrities went to this, that, or the other black-tie party or charity ball. Worse still is the way these nonstories have pushed their way into prominent sections of the paper, like the back page of section one the Tribune.

A.R. Gurney’s sly, literate sex farce, The Perfect Party, begins by lampooning these frivolous party journalists and ends by commenting ironically on contemporary theater, the state of the nation, and, in true postmodern fashion, those who would comment on theater and the state of the nation.

Tony, an ex-professor of English and powerless (but rich) descendant of “what was once the ruling class” in this country, decides that his ticket to celebrity is to throw the perfect party and have it covered by Lois, the first-string “party critic” for an influential but unnamed New York daily. He contrives the perfect, appropriately varied guest list, which includes the “full spectrum of racial and regional diversity.”

The party gets off to a bad start, however, when Tony’s wife, Sally, admits she has reservations about it just as the guests are about to arrive. “What if it isn’t perfect?” she asks. And several lines later: “I may not be a la-de-da college professor, but I know hubris when I see it. When people start wandering around the house talking about perfect parties, and inviting New York newspapers to write them up, then I get a primitive Sophoclean shudder. We are challenging the gods here tonight, Tony.”

Tony’s closest friends, Wes and Wilma, don’t like the sound of his party either. They show up much too early, dressed in bathrobes, to tell him that the pressure of having to be perfect guests at a perfect party has given them a paralyzing case of anxiety. “It’s tough enough going to any party these days,” Wilma explains, “let alone a perfect one.”

At about this point, reporter Lois gets the feeling Tony’s party will be far from perfect, and she announces that she’s not going to cover it after all. Tony panics, and manages to persuade her to stay only by inventing a preposterous twin brother for himself, the evil but sexually alluring Tod (a name, Tony points out, that means “death” in German). Lois stays for the chance to meet him.

Of course the party, which we never see but hear reports of, is a disaster. Tony and Sally are far too tense to be good hosts, and even when Tony disguises himself as Tod and seduces Lois, that does nothing to save the situation. Both the party and Tony’s seduction peak too soon. As Lois says in a capsule-review broadcast on local television: “It sputters where it should sparkle, and fizzles where it should dazzle.” “It,” of course, refers both to the party and to Tony’s sexual performance. All is not lost, however, and in a series of comic reversals the party–though not perfect–is saved.

What keeps The Perfect Party from being merely a well-written, very entertaining modern sex comedy is the clever way Gurney comments on the play itself as it unfolds. All of the characters, for example, seem half-aware of the fact that they’re people in a play. Tony refers to his study–where all of the action takes place–as a place “where we can talk, without being disturbed by the preparations for this evening’s party which are taking place, as it were, offstage.” As already noted, Sally worries that she’s trapped in some Sophoclean tragedy.

And Lois, the critic, walks through the party constantly and pretentiously making observations. She notes, for example, that Tony’s favorite authors–Hawthorne, James, Fitzgerald, Cheever, and Updike–have influenced his conversation, which she calls “casual discourse.” She also cautions Tony that he may be too strongly influenced by Oscar Wilde. Her observation proves accurate: Tony’s ruse–pretending to be his philandering brother–comes right out of The Importance of Being Earnest, and the play is full of Wildean epigrammatic wit. Lois says, “You make [the party] sound vaguely sexual.” Tony replies, “Do I? I hope I don’t offend.” “No, no,” Lois says. “I like sex, coming as I do from New York.”

Lois is never more the critic than when she imposes some grandiose interpretation on an otherwise simple social gathering: “What you’ve got here,” she says, “seems to be a kind of microcosm for America itself, in the waning years of the 20th century.” At another point what she calls her “cool, clear vision of some social ideal” leads her to condemn the party because she has “serious reservations about the lighting.” So it makes sense that Tony should lament the fact that one critic can make or break a party. In fact, switch the word “play” for “party” throughout and you have a wicked satire of contemporary theater criticism.

Eric Nightengale’s intelligent direction is the perfect match for Gurney’s party. And Nightengale’s cast–though a bit too young to be completely convincing as middle-aged men and women–handles Gurney’s witty but often difficult dialogue quite well. The exception is Martha Cotton as Sally: from time to time she had real trouble just spitting out her lines. But Seth Jacobs as Tony and Ruth Ann Weyna as Lois carry off such difficult lines as “But then the world would little note, nor long remember, what we do here” with the ease of Shakespearean actors.