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A CurtainUp Review
Absurd Person Singular
By Elyse Sommer
Isn't it singularly absurd for MTC to continue its love and support for the darkly comic plays of the prolific Ayckbourn with a production that would come off as less than a fine old wine even if not shallowly directed by the usually expert John Tillinger? And isn't it singularly absurd that a terrific newer play that better illustrates Super Prime Ayckbourn -- Private Fears, Public Places, smartly directed by the playwright and thrillingly acted by members of his own Stephen Joseph Theater Company -- was allowed to slip out of town after an all too brief run as part of last season's Brit Festival at the 59E59 complex?
It's not that this Absurd Person Singular is a disaster or that Tillinger wasn't a natural choice to direct it. After all, he acquitted himself very well with MTC's most recent Ayckbourn outings, the tricky House & Garden and the quirky Comic Potential and has assembled the same superb design team that helped buoy those productions. The cast is good enough and should not be unfavorably compared to that of the original Broadway production. However, like the playwright's other forays into mismated coupledom, Absurd Person Singular's laughs derive from slamming doors, mis-communication (or no communication) but with a pitch black underside. While there's no shortage of laughs and with one of the women spending the entire second act trying to kill herself, neither is the darkness neglected. What's absent here is the delicate balance needed to integrate the humorous and darker elements. Consequently, we laugh only sporadically and find little in the characters' absurd quirks to make us want to give any real thought to the changes in their marital and social situations.
We get to know Absurd's three unhappily undivorced couples for whom the phrase "lives of quiet desperation" might have been coined over three consecutive Yuletide get-togethers in their respective kitchens. The first gathering in the tract house of Sidney (Alan Ruck), a determinedly upwardly mobile entrepreneur and his chirpy wife Jane (Clea Lewis). For all the farcical disasters at this party at which everything that could go wrong does, this first act is so sluggishly paced that much of the comic business simply isn't terribly funny. Instead, it works primarily as a set-up -- first, to establish the characters' problems; secondly, to explain why the upper crust banker Ronald (Paxton Whitehead), his acerbic wife Marion (Deborah Rush), womanizing architect Geoffrey (Sam Robards) and his neurotic wife, Eva (Mireille Enos), all from a decidedly higher social strata than Sidney and Jane, would accept an invitation to this lowbrow suburban party.
The connecting link is, of course business. Sidney wants a loan from the banker and thinks the architect will help him realize his ambitions as a realtor. To the banker, Sidney is a potential client. The real link is that all are people without a real center. Sidney, in his nervous eagerness to succeed, browbeats Jane, who in turn copes by compulsively leaving no inch of formica unpolished and inhaling various spirit-boosting household sprays. While Ronald is properly born-to-the manor for the snobbish Marion, marriage to him hasn't kept her from being bored enough to be on the verge of alcoholism. Eva is gorgeous but that doesn't keep Geoffrey from being chronically untrue to her, which does little to keep her from relying on more and more pills to keep her from "turning into a raving maniac."
Clea Lewis is amusing as the compulsively clean Jane whose being locked out of her gleaming kitchen is the first act's major pratfall. However, the only time Ayckbourn's comic flair really clicks in during this scene is when Paxton Whitehead comes onstage an Debora Rush's Marion comments on the kitchen with barely veiled sarcasm (the washing machine's separate dials for white and colored prompt "it's apartheid!" and the curtain colors evoke a sly "most insistent").
The second and best act takes place in the kitchen of Sidney and Eva's flat. The most winning performance here comes from Mireille Enos, who, having been told by Geoffrey that he plans to move in with another woman, silently and persistently determines to do herself in. Each suicide attempt come to naught thanks to an interruption from one of her guests, though all are too self absorbed to notice what's really going on. The funniest inadvertent rescuer is once again Whitehead, who sends the laugh meter through the roof when he's almost electrocuted.
As if aware that the first act didn't get all the laughs intended, Mr. Tillinger has directed the actors -- even Ms. Enos -- to play each variation on the failed suicide gag to the hilt — even at the risk of undermining the sad, crass display of obliviousness to one another's pain.
As the middle act aims at and gets a laugh a minute, the final act veers abruptly to Ronald and Marion's cold and drafty kitchen and the gloomiest Christmas gathering of all. Ronald is huddled in blankets, unable to make sense of his life, while Marion has become a full-fledged and reclusive alcoholic. When she does make an appearance, she reminds one of a middle-aged Ophelia. Unlike the previous acts, no guests have been invited but Eva, and soon after Geoffrey, drop in for a neighborly visit. Yes, they're still married, though hardly happily so. The much subdued Geoffrey's career as a successful architect has fallen on hard times and Eva explains her new calmness by explaining that her husband is simply "no longer a man I care enough to throw myself out of a window for."
The ghostly gloom overhanging the last scene turns devastating with the arrival of the nouveau rich Sidney, with the still chirpy Jane in tow but this shift has lost its originally timely reference to changes in the British power structure going on. As the foursome in the shabby old mansion kitchen turn off the lights and hide, hoping to no avail that Sidney and Jane will go away, so the old world ruling class could not stem the rise of the less cultivated lower middle class Sidneys and Janes. Thus when Sidney insists on leading a silly and humiliating variation of musical chairs to celebrate Christmas, this absurd reversal of the balance of power comes to a singularly grim ending.
Fortunately, the shortcomings in pacing and balance do not apply to the stage craft. John Lee Beatty's kitchens as much as anything that happens, characterize their occupants life styles.
For trivia collectors, Absurd Person Singular 's original Broadway production ran for 591 performances, was directed by Eric Thompson and featured Larry Blyden as Sidney, Geraldine Page as Marion, Carole Shelley as Jane, Sandy Dennis as Eva , Richard Kiley as Ronald and Tony Roberts as Geoffrey. Miss Enos recently played another Sandy Dennis originated role, that of Honey in a revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
LINKS TO OTHER ALAN AYCKBOURN PLAYS REVIEWED:
Private Fears Public Places
House and Garden
Damsels In Distress: GamePlan, FlatSpin. and RolePlay/Ayckbourn, Alan (London)
By Jeeves (NY)
Woman In Mind/
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