There’s something wrong with Mollie Mae’s (Gina Costigan) new kitchen, here in an aspiration-tinged suburb of Dublin. Her mother Carmel (Hayley Mills) notes how modern it looks, but so sleek it might be more suited to an autopsy than entertaining.
There is also a large chunk bashed in on one of the side surfaces. Damage, hidden and in plain sight, is the theme of Isobel Mahon’s all-female play Party Face, directed by Amanda Bearse, at New York City Center. Who’s wearing what “party face” to get through the evening ahead that will excavate secrets around childhood, marriage, and mental health?
If Mills is most famous as a child star—of Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, and Whistle Down The Wind—here she is a mother whose status-obsessed shallowness and criticism of her children has, without her knowing, undermined their relationships. Sure, the love is still there, but it has—and Carmel is too willfully blithe to recognize it—meant that when Mollie needed her most, Carmel was lacking.
Mahon’s comedy, which feels slight but charming, is one of contrasts. This should be a simple, sparkly party of nibbles—salt and vinegar crisps, wine, and the like—that Mollie is throwing to celebrate her new extension, instead of the recrimination and bitching session it becomes. Jeff Ridenour’s design is so sleek and attractive that he will give you your own design ideas. We are sitting above Mollie Mae’s extension and its tasteful furniture, with neatly potted plants marking the new outdoor patio. Unseen is the piece of topiary of a penis and balls. Very edgy.
It isn’t just a critical mother who’s come to Mollie Mae’s party. There is also the status-obsessed, competitively thin, and beautifully dressed neighbor Chloe (Allison Jean White), Maeve (Brenda Meaney), Mollie Mae’s sister, dressed in her pinstripe work duds, and then—suddenly at the end of act one, as a water leak brings chaos—in bursts Bernie (Klea Blackhurst).
Bernie is the key to the mystery of where Mollie Mae has been and what is wrong with her, which includes both the physical injury we can see and the psychological injury she makes no effort to hide. The shame in the room is felt by Carmel; she is desperate no one find out what happened to Mollie Mae, and Mahon deftly sketches both the comedy and drama of the fallout of revelations and private pain. Carmel would rather talk about delicious savory tartlets, not her daughter’s dysfunction, and certainly not her own ghostly grief.
The play errs on the side of mild rather than biting; it feels a gentle, rather than searing, deconstruction of a family crisis. Mills is a low-level nightmare mom: not a monster, not wantonly cruel, but damaged herself. For her, nothing is right with Mollie Mae—her clothes, her demeanor, how she has handled a failing marriage; all is subject to criticism. Her casual lording over Mollie Mae is so well-practiced she doesn’t realize she is doing it, and her daughters know well enough how to avoid the minefields around it.
Costigan’s excellent performance is the layered heart of the play. She is, she lets us know, a stranger not only in this newly renovated home, but also a stranger in her own life. The collapse of her marriage has left her feeling shorn of identity. That is both terrifying and liberating for her, and Costigan expresses the bluntness, fear, and resistance to falling apart that Mahon gives her character.
Meaney is also great as the protective Maeve, not willing to natter away like Carmel and Chloe about fixtures, fittings, carbs, the right wines and snacks, the best diets. Instead, she scorns by magnificent eyeroll and sarcasm.
Maeve and Chloe are also linked by a secret, and White plays both kittenish antagonist, trying to extract secrets and confessions using sing-songy innocent inquiry (which isn’t fooling anyone), and also a lonely housewife desperate to keep up and keep ahead of her peers. A surprising vulnerability blooms in the cracks.
Bernie, meanwhile, wraps everything in cling film—shoes, bowls of crisps, cushions, and for comically prolonged periods—but, as the craziest people often are (at least in fictional dramas), she is also the piece’s accidental seer. By the end, everyone’s “party faces” turn out to be the most unnecessary masks, and that missing chunk of kitchen, expensive as it was, begins to look like the best kind of design trend.
Party Face is at Stage II, New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, NYC, until April 8. Book here.