It’s been said that people congregate in kitchens at dinner parties because the food-prep area is a “backstage” space, somewhere where folks can be their authentic selves. In the kitchen, you don’t need to put forward the formal, public persona you use in the living room or dining room.
The Barrow Group Theatre Company and the Pond Theatre Company’s joint production of Muswell Hill, by British playwright Torben Betts, is set entirely in a kitchen. This often-trenchant 2012 drama explores the disconnectedness that pervades our lives in the cyber age. The play’s North London dinner party turns out to be a most unpleasant affair, one at which everyone present comes off as superficial, judgmental, self-absorbed, and/or more interested in tech gadgets and wireless plans than in thoughtful human interaction. In other words, the characters’ authentic kitchen selves are hot messes.
The party’s hosts are a young married couple, Jess (Colleen Clinton) and Mat (Jason Alan Carvell). She has a lucrative career in accounting; he’s a long-aspiring novelist. Just as the soiree is about to get underway, he tells her that he’s heard she’s been having an affair with another man. She refuses to discuss the matter. This puts the whole evening under a steel-gray storm cloud. And then the guests arrive.
And what a crew those guests are. Karen (Lily Dorment) is a garrulous young widow who is focused on maintaining her vegetarian purity and (at least for the first part of the evening) her sobriety. Simon (Richard Hollis) is an oafish, heavy-drinking socialist who has been out of the country for some time and is hoping to find a sexual connection with one of the women at the party—it doesn’t much matter which one. Jess’s younger sister Annie (Sarah Street)—a badly damaged, exceedingly needy young woman—has invited an unexpected guest named Tony (John Pirkis), who is her supposedly single, 60-year-old “fiancé.” Tony is a preening man of the theater who has, it turns out, not actually left his wife. His personal development seems to have been arrested sometime back in the decadent 1970s. Add numerous bottles of wine to this mix, and you’ve got drama.
The global backdrop to Betts’s scenario involves a devastating earthquake that has happened hours earlier in a third-world country, killing perhaps 100,000 people. The party guests all make perfunctory noises about the horror of this event, but they don’t talk about it for long. Is Betts blaming them for their indifference? Maybe. But for those of us who’ve needed to go about our daily lives in the face of all sorts of unspeakable breaking-news tragedies, the characters’ detachment will seem familiar if not exactly commendable.
Betts has written some effective scenes (staged deftly by director Shannon Patterson), exposing the narrowness of these people’s lives. Especially well-drawn are moments of awkwardness and humiliation involving characters who enter the kitchen through a silent, swinging door only to overhear themselves being bad-mouthed. (There’s also one amusing scene in which the opposite happens: a character keeps pontificating long after his listener has exited the room.)
Some of the characters do experience some degree of change in the course of the action. But I left the play not entirely sure about what all it was meant to add up to. Part of the problem is that the characters are almost uniformly unlikeable. Only the ever-frowning, long-suffering Jess earns more than a smidgen of our sympathy.
On the plus side, the production boasts a talented cast, delivering performances that are well worth catching. Hollis and Pirkis—portraying the play’s two wild boors—make particularly strong impressions. But all six of the players here do admirable work.