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A CurtainUp Review
Muswell Hill
By the way, a social networking acquaintance of mine informs me that for the last two months you've been having sex with an Australian electrician called Stuart. — Mat
Jason Alan Carvell and Colleen Clinton (photo credit: Todd Cerveris)
Often enough a play with interesting, well-played characters and a well-structured plot that holds your attention throughout but still doesn't seem to have or make its point with clarity. Torben Betts's compelling but also confounding Muswell Hill is such a play.

A co-production between The Barrow Group Theatre Company and The Pond Theatre Company (also a New York based group that showcases plays from the U.K. and Ireland), it juxtaposes a disastrous dinner party of six middle-class mostly thirty-something (except for one Londoner) against the disastrous 2010 earthquake in Haiti in which thousands of people are reported being killed at that very moment. That misery of such magnitude can be equated in any measure against what's being dramatized on the stage puts the playwright on the spot.

The news reports are coming in while Jess (Colleen Clinton) is doing a little stirring of the monk stew simmering on the stove of their up-scale London flat's kitchen (efficiently designed by Edward T. Morris). The kitchen is where her husband Mat (Jason Alan Carvell) is sitting at his computer not only getting news of Haiti but from a friend on social media that his wife is having an affair with an electrician. It's a bomb that he drops on her so casually and with such an unexpected air of insouciance that it barely intrudes on her earnest preparation of food for their soon to arrive guests.

As tragic as the news that sporadically filters in is, it works as a backdrop for the evening's repartee. We are about to see just how survival among the affluent and their affiliates isn't so easy. We learn pretty quickly that the attractive Jess is a hugely successful accountant apparently with no regrets about being the breadwinner. Mat is an unemployed, unpublished novelist who has just received his latest rejection.

Jess seems both unsettled and content. As one by one, guests are welcomed and soon enough become as unwelcomed and in turn unwelcoming as the chatter goes from turgid to the terrifying— all amidst Jess's impressive preparation (seen) and the eating of the courses (unseen in the dining room).

Oh yes, the guests from hell. There is Simon (Richard Hollis), Mat's long-time buddy from university days who knows how to clear a room with his leftist political posturing, infuriating opinions and generally reprehensible cynicism.

The most vulnerable guest is Jess's tactless overly glib on-the-make best friend Karen (Lily Dorment), who takes on Simon as a challenge. Real trouble brews with the arrival of Jess's emotionally scarred alcoholic adoptive 23 year-old sister Annie (Sarah Street) and Tony (John Pirkis), her smug 60 year-old fiancé. Tony is a delusional world-weary drama scholar and lecturer who has sold the very pretty Annie a bill of goods about New York and that he can make her into a actress and a singer.

There is no question that the characters deploy their idiosyncrasies as well as defend their ideologies cleverly, and often ruefully. And there is never a dull moment; nor is there a disingenuous divulge even if these socially embattled people don't necessarily define a world in which personal havoc could ever be as horrifying as the one created by a natural disaster. Having each confrontation segue to the next with a blackout is an effective device.

All the actors have carved out distinct images of very real, if conflicted, people under the fine direction of Shannon Patterson. I hope we get to see more from this provocative playwright. Ms. Clinton is to be commended for her exacting preparation of a dinner that includes lobster and avocado appetizers, hors d'oeuvres as well as scrambled eggs for Karen who doesn't eat fish.

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Muswell Hill by Torben Betts
Directed by Shannon Patterson

Cast: Colleen Clinton (Jess), Jason Alan Carvell (Mat), Lily Dorment (Karen), Richard Hollis (Simon), Sarah Street (Annie), John Pirkis (Tony)
Scenic Design: Edward T. Morris
Lighting Design: Solomon Weisbard
Costume Design: Kristin Isola
Sound Design: Matt Otto
Production Stage Manager: Brent Winzek
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
TBG Theatre, 312 W. 36th Street 3rd Floor
Tickets: $35.00
Performances: Monday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 7:00 p.m
From 11/11/17 Opened 11/20/17 Ends 12/16/17
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 11/18/17

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