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Skillful cast shines in dark comedy ‘Abigail’s Party’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Writer and director Mike Leigh is best-known – at least in the United States – for his films, including gritty working-class dramas such as “All or Nothing” and “Naked” but also period dramas such as “Topsy-Turvy,” “Mr. Turner,” and “Vera Drake.” But in the United Kingdom, Leigh is also regarded as a first-rate playwright.

One of his best plays is “Abigail’s Party,” a caustic yet frequently hilarious dissection of middle-class British life that originally opened in London in 1977. “Abigail’s Party” is a razor-sharp satire of social aspiration in the London suburbs in the 1970s.

This dark British comedy requires skillful actors, and thankfully, director Marty Epstein’s current production at West End Productions is graced by an outstanding cast equal to the challenge.

Lower middle-class Beverly and Laurence are having a cocktail party at their flat and have invited another couple, their working-class neighbors Tony and Angela, as well as another neighbor, the solidly middle-class divorcée Susan.

What makes this production so compelling is the detail and subtlety the actors bring to their parts.

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As the characters get increasingly plastered, the facade begins to crack. Laurence and Beverly’s marriage is clearly a shambles, and Beverly’s shallowness becomes more and more apparent. This may be a comedy, but we sense that this is not going to end well, and sure enough, we are right. The ending is a shock for us and for the characters on stage, and is brilliantly done, especially in Colleen McClure’s incisive and believable characterization of Beverly.

While this is a penetrating social satire and a dark comedy of manners, it is also a naturalistic drama and requires the kind of idiosyncratic naturalness we find in real life. All of these marvelous actors endow their characters with unique characteristics that can be found only over a long and concentrated period of rehearsal. This is ensemble playing at its finest, and Tim Crofton, Dean Squibb, Jessica Osbourne and Laira Magnusson are all able to match McClure’s brilliance.

Their British dialects are perfect too, and you will feel like a fly on the wall of a London suburban flat as you watch in fascinating horror. But you won’t be able to fly away when disaster looms; you will be glued to your seat. “Abigail’s Party” is playing through Oct. 15 at the VSA North Fourth Art Center, 4904 Fourth NW. Go to westendproductions.org or call 410-8524 for reservations.

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