It’s a shame that the works of English playwright Alan Ayckbourn are not performed more frequently in this country.
Just a handful of his more than 74 plays are familiar to regular theatergoers including The Norman Conquests, How the Other Half Loves, Bedroom Farce, Relatively Speaking, Woman in Mind, A Chorus of Disapproval and the work currently on view at the Barrington Stage Company’s Main Stage, Absurd Person Singular, which was one of Ayckbourn’s first big hits in this country back in the mid- 1970’s. His plays are for the most part comedies, quite funny comedies in fact, but they come with a serious edge, bearing great empathy for some of the situations the characters must endure and an understanding and appreciation of some of the despair that they feel. His plays frequently revolve around the ironies of individual timing, just as one character may be ready to make a commitment, the other has decided to throw in the towel. An Ayckbourn comedy can move you to tears just as quickly as it can make you laugh out loud.
An Ayckbourn comedy can also stimulate you intellectually. His works frequently play with notions of time and space in extremely delightful ways. Take, for example, “House” and “Garden,” two works that must be played simultaneously in two adjacent theaters, although an audience can see one or the other, or both, over subsequent days and obtain a full evening of theater. The actors move between the two plays, which occur in real time, but depending upon what theater you are in, you see the story unfold in either the country house or its garden. In one of last year’s big revival hits on Broadway, “The Norman Conquests,” told the story of the careless Lothario, Norman, in three separate plays that occurred in different rooms of the same country estate. In “How the Other Half Loves,” the action unfolds in two living rooms that exist simultaneously on stage. And what is probably one of his most ambitious productions, “Intimate Exchanges,” he wrote a series of eight plays for the same cast but which one will be performed that evening is determined by a coin toss prior to the start of the performance. Several of the eight plays open with similar scenes, others end in a similar manner, yet the internal action drastically changes from play to play.
With “Absurd Person Singular,” Ayckbourn ‘s genius is so set the plays on three consecutive Christmas Eves in the early 1970’s (’73-’75) in the three different kitchens of three couples of nodding acquaintance who get together each holiday. In addition to being a series of jokes and amusing situations involving these couples, Ayckbourn incorporates subtle references to the changing economic and social standards of that period in time. Social currents are changing how society looks at class divisions, which are suddenly becoming less clear thanks to baby-boomer money being poured into the system. Nouveau rich enterpreneurs are entering formerly restrictive enclaves. The prevalence of drugs, the growing role of the women’s movement and an increasing acceptance of psychoanalysis will also impact the three couples over the three year period, in both unexpected and even regrettable ways.
The evening opens in the well-scrubbed middle class kitchen of Sidney and Jane, who have invited a local banker and a prominent architect and their spouses for a Christmas gathering, in order to impress them into supporting Sidney’s plans to build a division of affordable (read that: inexpensive and barely sufficient quality) housing. The aloof and condescending guests feign interest in their hosts’ new appliances and cupboards, while the anxious, nervous hosts endure heavy rain and personal embarrassment to cover up perceived flaws. While introducing the three couples (and the unseen forth, the Potters, who also play key offstage roles in each act) and establishing the antic pace that will mark the evening, this first act, under Jesse Berger’s direction, moves just a little too slowly and misses out on some key laughs to encourage an audience to eagerly anticipate the second act.
Berger seems an odd choice to direct a nearly contemporary comedy, as he is better known as the maestro behind New York’s remarkable Red Bull Theater, which remounts classical plays from the pre-Elizabethan theater. Berger’s strength has been in directing with an emphasis on extreme action, not to mention a lot of blood, such works as Edward II, the Revenger’s Tragedy, Women Beware Women and the Duchess of Malfi. His heavy hand is apparent, explaining perhaps why the play does not as smoothly and easily as it should.
The evening’s best scene is the second act, in which Eva, the counter-culture inspired social worker wife of the architect Geoffrey, is at the edge of personal despair as her husband plans to leave her for another woman. As the evening’s progresses, the overdrugged, depressed Eva tries various–and hilarious–methods in which to off herself, all under the oblivious eyes of the gathered guests, who assume she’s just under the weather and trying to clean her oven, change a light bulb, or open a can of paint stripper.
In the final act, the scene shifts one year later to the now-freezing kitchen of Ronnie and Marion, who although the most financially successful of the couples are experiencing difficulties because of Ron’s retirement and Marion’s increased alcoholism, which Ronnie refuses to acknowledge. We are also surprised by the change in Eva who now seems to wear the pants in her family and by the defeated Geoffrey, who has suffered a significant professional disaster foreshadowed in the previous act. Sidney and Jane unexpectedly arrive, fresh from their latest social climbing adventure, and in a stunning reversal end up cruelly humiliating the two couples they were trying to impress in the first act.
The pace of the evening, and perhaps even Ayckbourn’s writing, improves as the evening moves along, as do the performances of Berger’s cast. Julia Coffey and Robert Petkoff provide much of the humor throughout the evening as Jane and Sidney hilariously and frequently ineptly navigate the new social strata that they have targeted for themselves. Coffey’s insufferable pleasantness whether scrubbing a floor or getting stuck outside in a pouring rainstorm (a little more actual soaking may have made the first scene a little more desperate and funny) makes her both annoying and endearing, while Petkoff’s Sidney makes one squirm with his obsequiousness to outsiders and his abuse of his wife. Finnerty Stevens is somewhat of a blank as Eva, even in her big scene when blank-faced and silent, she runs across new ways to do herself in, although she’s marvelously effective and competent as the thoroughly-professional social worker she reverts to in the final act.
Christopher Innvar, who directed Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man earlier this season at BSC, is effectively aloof, angry and darkly moody at the appropriate times as Geoff sees his career spiral downward, while Graeme Malcom and Henny Russell depict the deterioration of Ronnie and Marion’s relationship in amusing, yet realistic ways.
Sara Jean Tosetti has designed costumes that differentiate the years and the changing economic status of the various characters, while Jo Winiarski has created three entirely different kitchens, which also function with similar effect. I would have expected, however, that Ronnie and Marion’s kitchen would be a little more upscale than the one presented here, in spite of the fact that Ronnie is keeping the heat off (in a time marked by rising fuel prices and continuing fuel shortages).
How Ayckbourn manages the balance between hilarity (and be assured some of the laughs and situations are laugh out funny) and the underlying seriousness is the secret to his success in Britain. You may walk away from an Ayckbourn play genuinely amused, but you’ll also know that you’ve felt something poignant, touching and meaningful as well. Perhaps that’s why Ayckbourn is not as popular in this country, where we like our entertainments segregated into specific categories. When we want to laugh, we want to laugh. And when we want to see something serious, we don’t want too much humor to throw us off. But such an attitude only prevents an audience from truly enjoying and experiencing the richness of an Ayckbourn play–and after all there are at least 73 more to enjoy.
“Absurd Person Singular” plays at the Barrington Stage Company through August 28, with performances on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 pm, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, Friday Matinees at 2 pm, and Sunday at 5 pm at the BSC Mainstage, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield. An additional matinee performance is scheduled for Wednesday, August 25th at 2 pm. Pay What You Can for audience members 35 and younger is Friday, August 20 at 8 pm. For ticket information, call the box office at 413.236.8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.