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Getting Through Abigail's Party—One Cocktail at a Time

Scott Lucas | May 20, 2013 | Story Galleries and Performance

Amy Glazer, a veteran director in theater and film (Drifting Elegant, Seducing Charlie Barker), is helming San Francisco Playhouse's revival of Abigail's Party, Mike Leigh's 1977 cringe comedy about the cocktail party from hell, crammed with several striving British couples coming apart at the seems. She recently sat down with Scott Lucas to talk about the play, Jewishness, and friendship.

Abigail is a teenager during this play. But since it’s set in the late 70s, she would be 40 or 50 now, wouldn’t she?
It’s funny you should say that, because I think a lot about Abigail. What kind of music are they listening to at her party? Is it David Bowie or the Clash? What kind of party is going on? It’s research that I’ve lived. I had that dress. I remember a guy who looked like that. And of course now fashion is so eclectic that you go to H&M and see pieces that look the same. You weren’t even born, but ‘77—I was in my prime.

You mostly do new plays. What’s the difference for you to do a revival?
On a world premiere, I have the writer sitting right next to me, and I can ask questions. Is it this or that? But once it’s had numerous performances, it’s been done before. So I have to ask—why are we doing it? And in this case, it still speaking to us, telling a story about how fleeting a moment can be.

It’s a pretty awful party, isn’t it?
Beverly is the hostess from hell—she’s driving her husband to get her the better apartment, and he’s trying so hard, dancing as fast as he can. But it’s not enough, it’s never enough. It’s that great myth of things giving you comfort, or making you happy, status.

You have to move it from the original British context to an American one. How do you do that?
By keeping it true to itself. That’s what so fascinating about storytelling, how you can cross those boundaries so easily. I’m working on a festival at San Jose State where I’m a professor, and there’s an Afghani student doings stand up. It could have been my son talking about me, what he’s saying about his mother. And also, and this is kind of crazy sounding, there’s something Jewish about the play that translates. Mike Leigh is a Jew, and probably a similar one to what I am, which is culturally Jewish but not religiously. There’s something about the specificity about the certain kind of madness, craziness that can be funny and dysfunctional. It feels very familiar, even though it’s not my class or country—and I was hopefully a lot hipper hopefully. I don’t want to make fun of them.

What about the characters draws you to them?
Bad behavior is dynamic. It’s fascinating. Aesthetics are not really what interests me. In this play, in particular, the behavior becomes really bad. Have another drink, have another drink, have another drink. There’s no self-awareness. The characters behave badly—but they’re not bad people. They’re all people trying their best to get through this evening. One day at a time? Forget that. It’s one hour at a time. One drink at a time. Each cocktail, the expectation, the anticipation is that it’s going to be fun, that moment when you have that glow at the party and things are going well and everybody is so interesting. And it just isn’t happening. Stylistically, it’s Eurydice meets Fawlty Towers.

What’s it like to move from theater to film to theater and back?
Movies move in a whole other time trajectory. I must have directed seven plays in the time I did Charlie Barker start to finish. They said I was fast, but it was four or five years. They’re different trajectories and rhythms. Doing the plays keeps my chops us. It’s more Zen when you do a play. It’s fast and dirty compared to every frame of a film. But, it’s wonderful to come back to the film after it’s finished and it’s the same.

What are you looking for in a playwright?
I’ve never met a writer I didn’t love.

Maybe you haven’t met enough writers yet.
No, no. Let me put it this way. When I pick a play that I want to direct, it’s always a play that I love. My job is to lose myself inside the sensibility and the aesthetics of the person who created it, and to find their story. I think the next time I want to make a film from a novel.

Would you write the novel?
No, no, no, from one of my friends’ novels. If I could pick any, I would adapt a novel by Ann Packard called Songs Without Words. We’ve talked about it.

Why that one?
It’s about friendship between women. As I get older, I’ve found that having my friends, my girl friends, is as important to me as having my husband and my son and my family. My family is everything, but they grow up and go off to do their things. Having real friends that keep you growing and are there for you is what its about. And it all takes place in the Bay Area, so I could shoot it all here. Another love letter to the Bay Area, which I adore. At the end of the day we hurt each other and betray each other sometimes, but there’s a deep bond between girlfriends and I don’t think people make enough of it.

Abigail's Party runs at the SF Playhouse from May 21 to July 6.

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