NEW YORK—Transplanted across the pond from a small theater in London, Torben Betts’s “Muswell Hill” strikes many a chord in American viewers, particularly those of a sophisticated, or, perhaps, a neurotic, bent. The characters with their computers and cell phones, text constantly, often avoiding direct interaction with one another.
In the upscale North London location, circa 2010, a married couple—high-earning accountant Jess (Colleen Clinton) and aspiring novelist hubby Mat (Jason Alan Carvell)—are preparing for an informal dinner party featuring a broad range of guests: Jess’s friend Karen (Lily Dorment) still mourns the death by suicide of her husband. She’s on the lookout for a new love, but no one compares to him.
Jess’s 22-year-old sister Annie (Sarah Street) arrives somewhat out of control, bringing, uninvited, the man whom she considers her fiancé, the much older Tony (John Pirkis). The fact that Tony is still married doesn’t faze Annie one bit.
Odd man out is Simon (Richard Hollis), a former buddy of Mat, who manages to turn everybody off. Late in the play Simon goes off half-cocked emotionally, latching onto political themes as the reason for his rage. But he’d be full of rage anyway.
Rather than turning Karen off, she claims Simon’s very much like her former husband, and they leave the party together. She’d remarked earlier that Simon is quite good-looking, “in a Ted Bundy sort of way,” referring to the infamous serial killer.
There’s chit-chat, and food preparation by Clinton as Jess, who merges her considerable acting skills with dealing with chopping, mixing, and washing dishes.
At one point, Annie, who insists, without much reason, that she will become a major actress-singer, launches into the role of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. The brief monologue is overdone, quite deliciously, in Sarah Street’s hands.
Although several references are made to world disasters, it’s patently clear that these people are narcissistic and self-concerned. They’re entertaining to watch from afar. Not many of us would want to be guests at this party.
And subtly hinted at, at various times, is an underlying shakiness in Jess and Mat’s relationship.
Excellent performances by all six performers, under Shannon Patterson’s taut direction, with the standout performances by three very attractive and skilled actresses at full pitch—Clinton, Street, and Dorment.
Edward T. Morris’s set is attention grabbing, with unique, sleak, slickly sliding white cabinet drawers. Costumes by Kristin Isola are not only just right for the characters but are particularly attractive.
Co-production of The Barrow Group Theatre Company and The Pond Theatre Company “Muswell Hill” gets my vote as a sleeper hit.
Barrow Street Mainstage Theatre
312 W. 36th St.
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or BarrowGroup.org
Running Time: 2 hours (one intermission)
Closes: Dec. 16
Diana Barth writes for various arts publications, including New Millinnium. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org