The revival of Alan Ayckbourn's "Absurd Person Singular" at the Biltmore begins as almost outlandish farce and ends on a tone both unsettling and cruel. If this inconsistency is jarring, theatergoers should blame the director, John Tillinger, rather than the author.
Ayckbourn is a far subtler playwright than his compatriot Harold Pinter, who recently won the Nobel Prize.
Ayckbourn's plays sometimes verge on farce, but they only work if you believe the characters. As soon as the curtain goes up on Tillinger's production of "Absurd," you see two people whose behavior is so manic that you immediately discount them as caricatures.
Sidney (Alan Ruck) and Jane (Celia Lewis) are in their London kitchen preparing for a cocktail party with two couples who may be of both social and financial use to Sidney.
They are understandably in a state of panic. Jane's takes the form of obsessive cleaning. This could be interpreted as a reflection of her anxiety, but Lewis does it simply as a grotesque comic mannerism, which quickly grows tiresome.
Ruck does not convey the disquieting sense of class that permeates British life. In the course of the play his status will change, but, if we don't believe his initial insecurity, what follows seems contrived.
Sam Robards is funny as a smarmy, womanizing architect. Mireille Enos stretches credulity at times as his pharmaceutically propped-up wife.
Paxton Whitehead brings his customary polish to the role of the upper-class twit, and Deborah Rush is splendid as his catty, snobbish wife.
The play chronicles three successive Christmas Eves in these couples' respective kitchens. But Tillinger fails to provide a sense of continuity, so they look like three farcical sketches, not a coherent play.
Set designer John Lee Beatty conveys the essence of the three kitchens beautifully. Like the playwright, Jane Greenwood's costumes ground outrageousness in reality.
It is hard but not impossible to combine farce and credibility. This weekend in Washington, D.C., I saw Kyle Donnelly's production of "Born Yesterday" for Arena Stage, which balanced the two brilliantly.
Ayckbourn's play deserved better.
Three catastrophes in three acts, all quietly, slyly offered, sum up “Absurd Person Singular,” Alan Ayckbourn’s blackish comedy, which opened last night at the Biltmore Theatre.
With Ayckbourn, comedy is simply domestic tragedy turned upside down, inside out, and is happily happening to other people.
This 1972 comedy, revived by the Manhattan Theatre Club, for many years Ayckbourn’s New York home base, is a machine-tooled case in point.
With spectacular neatness and varyingly disastrous but consistently hilarious consequences, he brings together three married couples on three consecutive Christmas Eves in their respective kitchens.
First, a hopefully upwardly mobile couple suffers the agonies of social near-disgrace; then, an unhappy woman silently, resourcefully but unavailingly attempts suicide during an entire act; and finally, four of this sad sextet are totally humiliated by the grossly triumphant pair who have, by now, upwardly mobiled.
When the play was new on Broadway in 1974, with a cast including Geraldine Page and Sandy Dennis, the emphasis was on farce. Now experienced Ayckbourn hand John Tillinger ups the ante for a rather subtler, but still riotously funny, style of comedy.
He is helped by John Lee Beatty’s settings (each kitchen cleverly representative of its owners’ character and lifestyle), Jane Greenwood’s apt costumes and a first-rate class.
Mireille Enos is great as the disheveled, mute would-be suicide, while a brusque Sam Robards scores as her self-satisfied architect husband.
As the working-class couple—and throughout Ayckbourn’s thumb is firmly pressed down on the British caste system—a properly odious Alan Ruck and a gloriously ditzy Clea Lewis are brashly right.
Yet perhaps the best laughs go to Deborah Rush as a snobbish banker’s wife with a saucy taste for the sauce, and the plumy-voiced Paxton Whitehead as her despairingly henpecked husband.
Laughing in the middle of a yawn produces a peculiar sensation, rather like swallowing wind. I chanced to discover this little-known fact of physiology at the revival of Alan Ayckbourn's "Absurd Person Singular," which opened last night at the Biltmore Theater.
As directed by John Tillinger in a Manhattan Theater Club production, Mr. Ayckbourn's classic farce of marital misery and Christmas cheerlessness, a hit on Broadway in the mid-1970's, doesn't exactly make the heart beat faster. The characters often feel more like props than people. The performers assume the right postures, say their lines on cue, even approximate the correct, class-conscious English accents. By and large, though, you have the sense of a talented, appealing ensemble waiting for some whimsical lightning bolt to shock it into a state of inspiration.
Such is Mr. Ayckbourn's efficiency in mixing incongruous ingredients to ridiculous perfection that every so often you are startled out of ennui and into abrupt barks of laughter. The combination of elements may be as simple as a man, a woman and a can of bug spray or as elaborate as a parlor game that involves an orange, an apple, a tea cloth, a spoon and the entire cast of six. In either case, such moments are little masterpieces of nearly foolproof comic contrivance, with absurdity seeming to rise both improbably and inevitably out of the everyday.
Mr. Ayckbourn's mastery in setting up such scenes has made "Absurd Person Singular" - a tale of three couples that is to yuletide angst what Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" is to backstage jitters - a favorite of community and repertory troupes. Mr. Tillinger's production is a step or two up from dinner theater. For starters, it has handsome, sociologically telling sets by John Lee Beatty and a thoroughly professional cast that includes Deborah Rush (who is, for the record, wonderful), Paxton Whitehead and Mireille Enos, who recently scored a hit as the nauseated Honey in Anthony Page's revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
What is generally missing here, though, is a sustained awareness of the ghost in the play's comic machinery, for all of Mr. Ayckbourn's ingeniously constructed fun houses are haunted by failure and loneliness. This hyper-prolific dramatist (more than 60 plays and counting) has never been as popular in the United States as in Britain (though the Manhattan Theater Club, which has produced five other Ayckbourn comedies, has done its best to keep his work before New Yorkers).
This culture gap would seem to have less to do with American audiences' willingness to accept the sadness in Ayckbourn than with American casts and directors' inability to deliver it. Finding the obvious laughs in Mr. Ayckbourn's work is child's play; uncovering the richer humor requires taking his characters seriously.
Simply sticking to the lively surface is an understandable temptation. Like much of Mr. Ayckbourn's work (including his recent "House" and "Garden," which gave new meaning to the idea of a double bill), "Absurd Person Singular" is built with mathematical precision from a very clever blueprint. The play has three acts, each set during a different party in a different kitchen on three consecutive Christmas Eves, bringing together the same three couples.
When the play begins, these six people are perched on different rungs of the social ladder. Starting from the bottom, they are Sidney (Alan Ruck), an ambitious real estate developer, and Jane (Clea Lewis), a neat freak of staggering proportions; Geoffrey (Sam Robards), a womanizing architect, and the profoundly unhappy Eva (Ms. Enos); and Ronald (Mr. Whitehead), a prosperous banker, and Marion (Ms. Rush), his acerbic, alcoholic wife. But in the economic uncertainty of the 1970's, the British class system is becoming unglued.
By evening's end, the pecking order will have been stood on its head. And Mr. Ayckbourn will have demonstrated what he has described as his fundamental principles of comedy: "My work is about men's inhumanity to women and women's inhumanity to men. It's also about the whole physical world's inhumanity to us all."
In "Absurd Person Singular," this means that idées fixes - whether Jane's lust to keep her home spotless or Eva's determination to kill herself - are destined to be thwarted. And while the characters may chatter like magpies, nobody really hears anybody else. Communication is an impossible dream.
You can grasp these themes intellectually from Mr. Tillinger's staging, but you are less likely to feel their emotional impact. The first act, set in the antiseptically maintained home of Sidney and Jane, is played as glaringly bright social satire. But as the show moves forward in time, turning progressively somber, the performers don't keep pace with the tone.
Ms. Enos, who made her mark with the role that brought Sandy Dennis an Oscar in "Virginia Woolf," is again taking on a part once played by Dennis (who was Eva in the first Broadway production of "Absurd Person Singular"). To her credit, Ms. Enos is not channeling Dennis here, as she did in "Virginia Woolf." But she doesn't seem to have a firm hold on Eva, whose second-act suicide attempts in the midst of cocktail small talk should be a high point of macabre hilarity. Though she retains a lockjawed upper-middle-class drawl, her Eva registers as a different person in each act.
Most of the cast suffers from similar inconsistency. Ms. Lewis does remain the same chipper cartoon throughout. But only Mr. Whitehead and Ms. Rush (both of the original "Noises Off" on Broadway) create a feasible portrait of a relationship. And let it be said that Ms. Rush traces Marion's descent into a gin bottle in splendid comic style while sidestepping the usual clichés of playing drunk.
Watching Ms. Rush is like spending a night on the town with a worldly woman whose sardonic charms at first seem only enhanced by alcohol. As she grows sloppier and more sentimental, she's still funny, but she is also seriously sad. That's the sensation that Mr. Ayckbourn's plays should produce, a feeling between an ache and a guffaw. Yawns shouldn't enter into it.
In Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular (*** out of four), the comedy is seldom pretty, even when it's fun to watch.
The new Broadway revival of Ayckbourn's play, which opened Tuesday at the Biltmore Theatre, focuses on three British couples at three consecutive Christmas Eve gatherings. Scenic designer John Lee Beatty ensures that the settings are vivid and authentic, from Sidney and Jane Hopcroft's modest, tidy kitchen to Geoffrey and Eva Jackson's sloppy, sprawling one to the classic Victorian decor favored by the older, more established Ronald and Marion Brewster-Wright.
The physical high jinks in Singular are just as visually engaging, thanks to John Tillinger's direction of actors who prove nimble in every sense of the word. The farcical elements of Ayckbourn's script require one of them, the lovely Mireille Enos - who proves just as masterfully droll as the pill-popping Eva as she was playing Honey in last season's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfl- to dangle out a window, slide off a table and end up on the wrong side of a slamming door.
But there is pathos underlying all these wacky shenanigans, and it's to the credit of Singular's author, director and cast that this Manhattan Theatre Company production avoids the kind of jarring sentimentality that more high-minded domestic comedies can flirt with.
That cast includes, in addition to Enos, Ellen alumna Clea Lewis, whose dizzy Jane is a perfect foil for the melodramatic, self-destructive Eva. Deborah Rush is equally winning as Marion, who devolves from a stylish, snarky society wife into a gin-swilling recluse.
The men are less patently troubled, but often similarly troubling, in their behavior. Paxton Whitehead's harried Ronald is the most sympathetic, and Sam Robards' narcissistic, womanizing Geoffrey the most obvious cad. We don't know what to make of Alan Ruck's working-class, upwardly mobile Sidney at first, except that his goofy quips and less-than-respectful treatment of his wife suggest that his ambition may outweigh his intellectual and moral worth.
By the third act, though, the passing of time and reversal of fortunes allow us different and more complex views of Ayckbourn's characters. Suffice to say that this perspective doesn't flatter Sidney, whom we see ordering the others around in a humiliating party game, like some tyrannical executive who has had one too many at the office Christmas bash.
"I don't know what it is about Christmas," Marion observes at one point. "I just find myself remembering all the dreadful things." Absurd Person Singular won't evoke such depressing reflection, but it does leave a bittersweet aftertaste.