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STAGE REVIEW : ‘The Perfect Party’ a Comical but Serious Look at Life

Just aR. Gurney’s semi-autobiographical “The Cocktail Hour” sheds light on the life of the writer, “The Perfect Party,” now in a staged reading by the San Diego Actors Theatre, illuminates how Gurney sees the craft of writing itself.

As with the best of Gurney, the commentary is at once comical and serious, with a touch of the surreal thrown in to remind us that the travails of a middle-aged professor of literature can say as much about the human condition as those of the historically less fortunate.

In “The Perfect Party,” the professor, Tony (Brian Salmon), has chucked his profession to give the perfect party, a practice he hopes to continue full time. (The perfect party translates as neatly into the perfect play as George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” translates into the Russian Revolution.)

In his desperation for success, Tony drives his long-suffering wife (Amelia Emerson) batty, bullies and edits the conversations of his best friends Wes and Wilma (Richard Harrison and Parker Tenney), telling them not to talk about taboo subjects like Israel or their kids, and tries to seduce a New York critic (Laura Ganz) by pretending to be his own evil twin brother.

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The biting question that charges the jokes is just how far one may tamper with art in the search for acceptance, and what the cost of compromise is to the work and to oneself.

Harrison, who also directed the show, keeps the humor broad in the spirit of parody, while keeping the focus of attack always in sight. Salmon rarely has had as forceful a part as Tony; he takes the reins and runs with the horse, leaving the others to breathlessly catch up with him. Ganz brings gleaming, well-sharpened claws to the part of the critic, Emerson sweet despair to the role of the wife and Harrison and Tenney, a pleasing comedy team banter to the part of the reluctant couple Tony so desperately needs to complete his party.

The San Diego Actors Theatre takes some liberties with the 3-year-old script, which first was done at Playwrights Horizons. They’ve cut it and added a topical reference to the “Geraldo” show. It works; one only hopes the playwright--who was not consulted-- doesn’t mind.

Also, the production is, as billed, a semi-staged reading rather than a full performance. The actors are mostly, but not completely off their scripts. The elegant venue of the Picasso room, a last minute gift from the Horton Park Plaza Hotel when the company’s space at the Progressive Stage Company fell through, could hardly be more appropriate.

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The dressy costumes similarly hit the mark and there is movement, but minimal scenery--all of which works surprisingly well because of the metaphorical rather than realistic nature of the play.

Still, this “Perfect Party” just whets the appetite for a full production.

Performances at 8:30 p.m. March 2 and 8 p.m. March 4-5 at the Horton Park Plaza Hotel, 901 5th Ave, San Diego.

Creating a classic must be a heady sensation for those in on the creation. But those who inevitably try to recreate the magic often find themselves working against standards that memory renders increasingly unreachable.

“My Fair Lady,” a United States International University (USIU) production of the Lerner and Loewe musical now playing at the Theatre in Old Town through March 12, does awfully well considering the memories it is up against. There are many pleasant moments under Alvin Kaufman’s direction and Kerry Duse’s musical guidance, but don’t look for any new riffs.

The part of Henry Higgins--the condescending grammarian who believes that language lessons can transform a flower girl into a lady, was, according to Rex Harrison’s son, Carey, the most memorable role of that actor’s career. Andrew Barnicle, a professor at USIU who tackles Higgins, wisely avoids an imitation of that classic performance.

Barnicle captures the look-down-the-nose aspect of Higgins’ character beautifully, but it is hard to go the distance and play crotchety without conveying age. When Harrison warned his flower girl that she shouldn’t get any ideas about him, as he is a confirmed old bachelor, we could believe him. But Barnicle is too young and comely to make that line sound anything but coy.

As Liza, Carol Logen, a former USIU graduate actress, does not come into the Julie Andrews/Audrey Hepburn role dramatically or musically until the second act when she gets to use her strong upper register in the songs. At that point she becomes an increasing pleasure to watch.

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Among the supporting cast of students at USIU, Thorsten Kieselbach as Liza’s n’er-do-well father, is outstanding. He provides a wonderfully warped look at the world from a self-satisfied sponger’s point of view. John Barrowman does a winning job with Freddie Einsford-Hill, Liza’s romantic, sweet-voiced suitor, and Rebecca Navaian Amoli brings authority to the role of Higgins’ mother.

The versatile chorus work--with about 20 students alternating as women of London, men of London, maids, servants and cockneys--is especially admirable.

Like the others, costume designer Bary Odom goes up against his own ghosts--specifically the memory of “My Fair Lady” designer Cecil Beaton. But here there are no disappointments. It is a wonder how he stretches a student budget to cover all those hats. Ah well, the school must have made up for it in the cardboard cut-outs they were reduced to for the scenery.

To see a small company attempt a big show like this is much like watching Higgins try to turn a flower girl into a fair lady. This production doesn’t quite make it as a lady, but it provides many pleasurable moments nonetheless.

Performances at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sundays, with Saturday/Sunday matinees at 2 through March 12. At the Theatre in Old Town, 4040 Twiggs Ave., San Diego.


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