Musical company

Ghosting the Party (Griffin Theater Company)

Griffin Theater Company is home to the Lysicrates Prize. Each year, it is awarded to a piece evaluated on its first 20 pages. As a former award judge, I can say it was an initially daunting process: what if the pages after the top 20 suck – or wonderful? What if the playwright was really good at a quick sprint but didn’t have the means for the long run?

As the process progressed and many 20-page pages were read, something else became apparent: if a writer couldn’t get attention with those pages, there wasn’t much interest in continuing. Fortunately, the 2017 winner of the Lysicrates Prize proves it. The opening scenes of Melissa Bubnic Ghosting the party are scintillating, hilarious, unpredictable and shocking. And what follows – over the course of 80 minutes – is rarely less than that.

Amy Hack, Belinda Giblin and Jillian O’Dowd in Ghosting the party at the Griffin Theater Company, May 2022. Photo © Clare Hawley.

The intention of the Lysicrates is to help a writer develop the partial or draft script to its optimum state through more work, more development, and more time. Ghosting the party had a bit more time and work than expected due to COVID, including false starts, postponements and cancellations, before his eventual arrival on the stables scene. Did any of the above make a critical difference or change the outcome? Who knows. All one can know is the company of Belinda Giblin, Jillian O’Dowd and Amy Hack, and the work of director Andrea James.

The opening scenes sparkle as 87-year-old Grace contradicts her name by growling and tugging at the unfortunate girl Dorothy like a pastel-clad snapping turtle. O’Dowd’s Dorothy is a gripping portrait of an oppressed, resentful and divided woman. It is both heartbreaking and irritating; no wonder Grace can’t resist attacking him even as a guilty sadness lurks beneath her shell. Adding to the quiet chaos, Dorothy’s daughter Suzie (Hack) has returned sullen from her successful career in Canada to be with her frantic grandmother and mother. It’s because Grace wants to die, is determined to die, and Dorothy is at her wit’s end about how to handle the grumpy old boot. (Ironically, Dorothy would have been against NSW’s long-awaited legalization of voluntary assisted death, legislation that was debated and passed during the play’s long hiatus.)

Belinda Giblin in Ghosting the Party at the Griffin Theater Company, May 2022. Photo © Clare Hawley.

Belinda Giblin in Ghosting the party at the Griffin Theater Company, May 2022. Photo © Clare Hawley.

It can be hard to believe that all of the above is wickedly and consistently funny. Giblin is a master of the perfectly timed one-liner, as well as being a heartbreaker, and she fashions a three-dimensional human out of acid-tinged rage and frustration. It is a performance around which the piece pivots and is anchored by its luminous and intelligent presence.

Two vignettes add to the all-too-familiar but delightfully biased clashes between mothers and daughters. It involves rapid changes for O’Dowd as she transforms into Suzie’s former mentor and colleague in Montreal, now a victim (“We’re Not Friends”). And for Giblin as a deliciously awful widower whose ill-fitting suit, ill-fitting comb and coupons for a cheap Italian dinner with Dorothy ultimately galvanize her into independent action.

Unfortunately for Dorothy, still unloved, Grace is doting on her granddaughter. Dorothy can’t stand the young woman’s carefree attitude towards her grandmother’s thoughts on death. That Suzie would have to allow her grandmother’s wish to be given up – as Dorothy sees it – is more than she can imagine. Although Hack can turn down the volume to fully reveal Suzie’s intricacies and better balance the trio, these triangulated attitudes perfectly encapsulate much of the euthanasia debate; and the humor highlights the seriousness rather than trivializing the matter. Yet neither her daughter nor her granddaughter truly understand Grace’s plight or take her wish to leave a world of pain and humiliation seriously. Again, human chess reflects the wider world, especially here in New South Wales, and the underlying gravity of Bubnic’s play is often surprising, coming after so much laughter.

Jillian O'Dowd in Ghosting the Party at the Griffin Theater Company, May 2022. Photo © Clare Hawley.

Jillian O’Dowd in Ghosting the party at the Griffin Theater Company, May 2022. Photo © Clare Hawley.

Everything is enhanced by Isabel Hudson’s finery. It’s one hell of a riot of pale florals – floor, walls, curtains – plus a mustard colored vinyl recliner and ottoman. These at least won’t be ruined when Grace and Dorothy pee each other in a rare moment of merriment. Hudson’s costumes also add to each character: Suzie’s mod black, Dorothy’s ruched sweater and tight pants; and Grace’s hated beige Velcro shoes. As well as being funny, the overall effect is unbearably sad: a terrific job, as is Verity Hampson’s mood lighting and Phil Downing’s rhythmic soundscape.

Ghosting the party has something serious to say about contemporary life and mores and does so with wit, humor and insight. The cast, led by Giblin, is enthralling and it all makes for a memorable and entertaining evening. Recommended.

Ghosting the party plays at the Griffin Theater Company until June 18, 2022.

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