There's just no getting around it: Despite the flimsiest of pretext's for a play, Alan Ayckbourn's "Bedroom Farce," which spread hilarity through the Atkinson last night, is a masterly comic construction, inventive enough to make Feydeau's cheeks burn in his grave. Impeccably directed by the author and Peter Hall, it comes to us with practically the same extraordinarily fine cast that introduced it at London's National Theater two years ago this month.
Originally written for Ayckbourn's own small Yorkshire theater troupe, which first presented it in 1975, it is far from the newest of Ayckbourn's works, whose humor has grown progressively more biting in recent years. But it is surely one of the funniest and is, in its way, as sardonic about human relationships as some of his more overt statements.
There are three bedrooms side by side on the stage, each one lighting up in turn for whole scenes or just passing exclamations or bits of business. An elderly couple, dressing for their anniversary dinner at the start, occupy the first. All the other characters are of an earlier generation, and roughly the same age. In the second bedroom, Malcolm and Kate are preparing to receive a houseful of guests for a party. In the third, Nick is bedridden with a severely aching back, but wife Jan is prettying up to drop in on the party for a bit.
Binding these three households together and at the same time driving them to distraction as the night wears on are Trevor and Susannah, also party guests. The desperately forlorn Susannah, the daughter of the elderly couple, Ernest and Delia, who regard her as rather "dim" not exactly hopeless. Susannah's husband Trevor, though, is a spectacularly neurotic, distracted, clumsy nuisance whose very apologies for his outrageous behavior are maddening. By morning, Trevor and Susannah, who have been at odds all night, partly because of Trevor's onetime love affair with Jan, and who have managed to send all the unseen partygoers fleeing into the night at a fairly early hour, have kissed and made up, leaving the rest of their world in shambles.
Ayckbourn's humor is so devastatingly simple, yet shrewdly planned and beautifully actable, that the mere use of the statement "Yes!" is enough to get a laugh, as is Delia's observation to Ernest, when he inquires why she's stocked the larder with tinned pilchards instead of sardines, that "I don't necessarily like everything I buy."
But basically, Ayckbourn's art lies in his uncanny ability to see the humdrum English middle-class existence in the form of an animated cartoon, and create the stage equivalent of an animated cartoon. The experience is heady, and it results in characters assuming all sorts of odd postures, being placed in ridiculous situations and positions, yet always believably so. When Kate happens to be under the spread as her own bed is being piled higher and higher with guests' coats, it's merely because she's fresh from the bath and hasn't had time to dress yet.
The all-British cast (it will be gradually replaced by an American one after nine weeks) is exemplary. Michael Gough and Joan Hickson are incomparable as Ernest, who likes nothing better than to read "Tom Brown's School Days" over and over, and aloud when possible, and the unflappable Delia, who was once told by her mother that when "sex rears it's ugly head, shut your eyes before you see the rest of it." Derek Newark is magnificent in his bursts of rage as he endeavors to assemble a desk as a gift for his tired Kate, a delightful ninny of enormous appeal as set forth by Susan Littler. Pretty, perky Polly Adams is an amusingly self-centered Jan, and Nick's troubles with his back in his repeatedly invaded bedroom are uproariously illustrated by Michael Stroud.
The two newcomers to the cast are Stephen Moore and Delia Lindsay as the rumpled, misanthropic and bumbling Trevor and his unnervingly soul-searching wife Susannah, and they are both excellent.
Timing is everything with Ayckbourn, and his pauses are as vital as Pinter's. But while "Bedroom Farce" must go like clockwork - every gesture, every "take," every word and expression - nothing, or, at least, very little, is forced.
The original, superbly-efficient setting by Timothy O'Brien and his wife Tazeena Firth is again in evidence, and the apt costuming (though the program doesn't make this clear) is undoubtedly theirs, as well.
Though sex, in the form of discussion, does rear its ugly head on occasion, "Bedroom Farce" closes its eyes on the rest of it. One eye, anyway, and with the brightest of winks.
Funny, funny, funny - but, no, more than funny. Alan Ayckbourn is a poet of our urban angst, and he is getting angster and angster by the moment.
He never makes a joke. Indeed he never even says anything remotely amusing. Yet his plays - even on a stiff wooden-Indian first night - provoke a gallimaufry of insane chuckles that could well be taped and patented as a laugh track for a TV sitcom.
Ayckbourn's method - and it is perfectly the opposite of a farceur such as Feydeau - is to put slightly, even delicately, unreal people, into totally real situations.
He is the British theater's comic-laureate, and most seasons he has two or three plays in the West End running together, neck and neck, like frolicsome racehorses.
On Broadway - so far - he has never been as so successful. But generally speaking his plays have not been so well done in New York as in London, or even his own home turf, the small seaside town of Scarborough, where he runs his own theater and first tries out all of his plays.
Last night Bedroom Farce opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater - and it should disperse all of New York's previous misgivings over Ayckbourn's comic muse, and her ability to inspire.
Bedroom Farce was commissioned by Britain's National Theater, is directed by the National Theater's director, Sir Peter Hall, in association with Ayckbourn himself, and comes to us, under those same auspices, as an official visit to our shores of The National Theater Company of Great Britain.
With just one or two exceptions - as the wayward heroine, for example, the fantastically bizarre Sara Kestleman has been replaced by the equally fantastically bizarre Delia Lindsay - the cast is the original National Theater troupe. It is superb. Perhaps for the first time in New York Ayckbourn is being seen under fair, home-grown circumstances.
Bedroom Farce is a farce about bedrooms, and a comedy about the people who hope to sleep in them. There are three bedrooms and four couples. The unevenness of texture, the assymetry of design, is by no means a mistake. Four into three won't go. But the mathematics involved can be comically disturbing.
There are three couples who are, during the course of evening expecting to end up in their rightful beds - peacefully. An elderly couple is planning a wedding anniversary treat to a neighborhood restaurant, a younger couple, full of home improvement prospects, and another couple has had its ideas disrupted by the husband acquiring a sudden, painful and totally incapacitating muscular spasm of the back.
Ordinary people. And another couple - also married, far from ordinary. These are Trevor and Susannah. They are peripherally attached to the others, by way of family, love or friendship, and they rampage through these three bedrooms of the night like a miniature wolf-pack in search of shelter.
All of these characters are totally involved with themselves. But the maverick duo of Trevor and Susannah are not content in being involved with themselves, they are totally and magnificently obsessed. They trample over everyone with a blind adoration of the ego, that is almost appealing, especially when seen from afar, in its handsomely clumsy singlemindedness.
The play - incidentally - ends not with happiness, but clearly with chaos ever after.
Ayckbourn and Hall have directed this hand-picked octet of bedroom chamber players with exceptional zest. The setting by Timothy O'Brien and Tazeena Firth (a well-established National Theater team) is, as it must be, uninteresting - three species of urban British bedrooms laying end to end on the same stage. Design, here, must of necessity, be sacrificed to concept.
And concept is what Ayckbourn is all about. He is always offering more dramatic questions than answers, but when a playwright clearly enjoys himself as much as the audience, he must be right.
The actors, all of them, are perfect. Let me just mention, the dead-panned Michael Gough and Joan Hickson as his plaintive wife, Stephen Moore as the angry young husband gone soft and Delia Lindsay as his nuttily intense wife. I could, just as well, have singled out Polly Adams, Susan Littler, Derek Newark and Michael Stroud.
All of this represents great comic acting in the funniest play of the season. Ayckbourn has wit, humor, invention and class. Broadway has never had the chance to see those qualities so clearly as in this authentic and even authenticated production. New York should go to find out what London finds so blithely funny.
As a title for the play by Alan Ayckbourn that opened yesterday at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, "Bedroom Farce" is both accurate and misleading. It is a farce, and of the first and most delightful order; and there are three large beds in it.
The beds, however, are used for piling coats upon. They are used for practical jokes, for resting a backache, for reading, for eating toast in. Mainly they are used as butcher blocks upon which the evenings of three married couples are comically dismembered by two galloping plague zones disguised as a fourth couple.
They are used, in short, for just about everything except for what beds are traditionally used for in a bedroom farce. The title is a central joke and a central seriousness as well. Mr. Ayckbourn has given us another episode in his running serio-comic commentary on British knottedness.
Knottedness, not kinkiness: his characters are simply people for whom the shortest distance between two emotional points is a tangle; and who are too beset by doubts, timidities and chronic self-complication to have time for anything as straightforward as sex.
"Bedroom Farce" has less real pain than many of Mr. Ayckbourn's comedies. It is one of his sunniest, and one of his funniest as well. It is airborne Ayckbourn; if it makes a serious point or two it is mainly a dazzling exercise in comic complexity, exercised pretty much for its own sake and our benefit by eight splendid actors from Britain's National Theater, jointly directed by Mr. Ayckbourn and Peter Hall.
The stage, a bit small for the occasion, is divided into three parts; each being the bedroom of a different household. One is occupied by Delia and Ernest, an elderly couple whose wallpaper is a hideous purplish brown and whose roof is constantly springing leaks. They are marked by the chill and tightened resources of old age but they rally continually in their childlike pleasure in having pilchards on toast in bed, and in maintaining a lively, hawklike eye on the peculiar affairs of a world growing younger and unhappier all around them.
The second bedroom belongs to Malcolm, a blustering, obtuse but likable male chauvinist, and by Kate whom he is constantly treading upon but who never quite gets trodden. She maintains a quiet detachment beneath her efforts to please, and ends up as perhaps the most interesting and mysterious character in the play.
The third bedroom is occupied by Nick, a fussy, self-important businessman who is in bed with a back-ache. He would like somebody to take the back-ache seriously but nobody does; least of all Jan, his wife, who treats him with breezy amiability and goes off to a party being given by Malcolm and Kate.
The reason she wants to go is that her former lover, Trevor, is invited along with his wife, Susannah, with whom he is very publicly fighting.
Trevor and Susannah are not so much the central characters as the central turmoil. They are Mother and Father Chaos, great self-absorbed lumps of incompetence who leave muddy footprints over everyone they encounter.
He is gangly and blurry, and his total concentration upon his feelings of the moment manages to infuriate everyone else, while disarming them at the same time. He sags onto people as if they were beds, unmaking them in the process. He and Susannah - who is large and soft, weeps continually, and would make the Gobi desert seem emotionally overcrowded - break up the party with their fighting.
He takes refuge with Nick and Jan, keeping them up all night. At one point he has been caught kissing Jan, which is infuriating to Nick but not nearly as infuriating as his endless apologies. Susannah, for her part, goes to visit Ernest and Delia, who are Nick's parents.
She gets into their bed, which they have been peacefullyoccupying, and turns it into a sodden mess. Eventually she and Nick make up noisily by telephone from the two bedrooms they have made a misery of; and they turn up at Malcolm and Kate's house - it is around four in the morning by now - to apologize and do some more damage.
Susannah, played by Delia Lindsay as a lumbering sleepwalker inhabited by a demented gnat; and Trevor, whom Stephen Moore makes long and mournful and sticky, are both very funny. But the heart of the play are the three resident couples.
Michael Gough's Ernest is slow and deliberate. White-mustached and fixed in expression, he has the genius of the unexpected; a delight comes popping out of him. Joan Hickson, shrewd, bright-eyed and opinionated puts equal surprise into a sudden reserve, a pause, a gravity in her talkativeness. The couple, so beautifully played, are among Mr. Ayckbourn's finest creations.
Derek Newark's lumbering, explosive and kind Malcolm and the engagingly blank Kate of Susan Littler - the dartings of her head are birdlike but this is a sparrow that shows peacock glints - are another most engaging and very funny couple. Jan and Nick are amusing, though less original; they are well played by Polly Adams and Michael Stroud respectively.
"Bedroom Farce" is a splendid comic mechanism. It begins in mere wit, as its pieces warm up one by one. For a while we seem to be offered not much more than a lively cleverness, and the mechanics of construction - the quick flashing back and forth from bedroom to bedroom - are a bit bothersome.
But farces, like airplanes, may rattle and shake as their engines get going. What is important is that they fly, and along about the middle of the first act Mr. Ayckbourn's play is in full flight and carrying us quite helplessly along with it.