Tempting Fete

Say what you will about the state of theater in Phoenix; at least our mask and wig clubs know their limitations. I've seen smallish Los Angeles companies cram colossal shows onto postage-stamp-size stages (most memorably a production of Showboat, shoehorned into a 100-seat house), but community theaters here typically work within their means. Eureka! Theatre Company is one of about a dozen teeny local troupes that has distinguished itself by presenting trim, lesser-known plays by well-known writers. This month, it's A.R. Gurney's The Perfect Party.

While this comedy doesn't have the same name appeal as Gurney's Love Letters or The Dining Room, it did manage to make it into the prestigious Burns Mantle Theater Yearbook: Best Plays of 1985-86, alongside such stalwarts as The Mystery of Edwin Drood and August Wilson's Fences. What this production lacks in proportion (like most of Eureka!'s recent shows, this one has been wedged into a lecture hall at a local resort hotel) it makes up for in smooth staging and adept acting.

Like any good Gurney play, The Perfect Party--a kind of cockeyed companion to his better-known The Cocktail Hour--is a theatrically self-conscious tale that divides its time between calling attention to itself and commenting on the sins of the middle class.

Tony (J. Scott Connelly) has ditched his tenured position at the local university to concentrate on throwing the perfect party, which he hopes will lead to a job as either a professional party planner or a talk-show host. To ensure his soiree's success, he's invited all the right people (Abba Eban, Debbie Reynolds) and persuaded Lois (Terri Garvais), a society critic from an unnamed "major New York newspaper," to cover the event. She's as determined to become famous with her review as Tony is with his gathering, which takes place offstage while we and the small cast crowd into the host's study to listen to Gurney's tidy metaphors for life as theater.

Gurney's people are berserk archetypes, and his points are made with a mallet, then belabored to the point of hysteria. Lois and several others remind us repeatedly that she's from New York, and therefore "brutal"; Wes (Mark Broadley) and Wilma (Nancy Therese Guilliams), Tony's best friends, discover he's invited them because they're Jewish ("You bring with you a sensitivity which comes from five thousand years of Jewish anxiety!"), a fact that's tripped over throughout both acts. The script is chockablock with this sort of deliberate cliche, which could quickly become monotonous if it weren't handled so amusingly. Although Gurney is something of a cultural aesthete (there are endless references to "meaningful" literature and the fatuousness of American life), he's funniest when he's peddling pop culture.

The very silly "element of danger" that Tony introduces in the second act--a dorky ruse about a caddish twin brother--is straight out of a '60s sitcom, and there are various asides aimed at television and the movies. Directors Evann Wilcosky and Matthew Cary punch up these passages, cutting a wide swath through Gurney's sometimes snooty opinions and arch observations on America's obsession with perfection.

Usually, a playbill that lists more than one director gives me pause--I don't think a play should be directed by committee. Wilcosky and Cary have made a couple of simple mistakes, like relocating the action to Scottsdale, leaving us to wonder why--even in a farce--a reporter from a New York paper would have flown in to cover such an event. But otherwise, the pair have achieved a directorial balance that's both frantic and overly explanatory, with every action spelled out and then boisterously underlined. This kind of uncurbed comedy might ruin a more subtle piece of writing, but Gurney's people and situations are already unbalanced, and they benefit from this disparate direction.

The cast members seem to have been chosen for their ability to mug, which they do profusely and proficiently, sometimes displaying better clowning than acting skills. Connelly squeezes every drop of incongruous comedy out of some long, difficult speeches, and even snags a couple of laughs in a silly scene in which he plays his own twin. Guilliams is one of those comic actors who's funny just standing there. She rolls her eyes and curls her lips in sardonic silence, and turns a nice little supporting role into a taut, witty performance. I've found Garvais stiff and overly mannered in previous roles, but that formality works to her advantage here, where she plays a repressed reporter dying to make it big. All of Gurney's ruminations on theater as life and the importance of our "performance" in social settings can be a bit daunting, and this time he burns himself out with an implausible, silly windup. But the folks at Eureka! Theatre Company, determined to sell us their favorite plays, have focused on what's accessible in Gurney's play and turned out a Perfect Party worth attending.

The Perfect Party continues through Saturday, July 4, at the Doubletree Paradise Valley Resort, 5401 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela