Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ayckbourn Country

Bedroom Farce
Written by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Jenn Thompson
Starring Mark Alhadeff, Eve Bianco, Sean Dougherty, Cynthia Harris, Larry Keith, Margaret Nichols, Scott Shafer, Ashley West

Performances from October 5 to November 8, 2008
Beckett Theatre
410 West 42nd Street

Schafer, Alhadeff and Nichols
in Bedroom Farce
(photo: Stephen Kunken)
Alan Ayckbourn’s plays are so intricately structured that it doesn’t do them justice to call them comedies or–nodding to this play’s somewhat facetious title–farces. Ayckbourn obeys farce’s rules of broad comedy and normal people thrust into abnormal situations, yet goes so far past the physical comedy in which farce best percolates that he leaves such inapt signifiers behind.

Bedroom Farce is simply one of Ayckbourn’s most deeply funny yet melancholic plays: four married couples who have been together from a few years to several decades play out, in the course of one night, the usual misunderstandings that are part of any long-term relationship: Malcolm and Kate hold a housewarming party, which both Trevor and Susannah and Trevor’s former girlfriend Jan, attend (Jan’s husband, Nick, stays home with a bad back). Meanwhile, Trevor’s parents Ernest and Delia celebrate their anniversary with a dinner at their favorite restaurant (as Delia says, “We’re regulars–we go there every year.”)

Ayckbourn places the action in three couples’ bedrooms: Malcolm and Kate’s, on whose bed the party guests’ coats pile up; Nick and Jan’s, in whose bed Nick is laid up; and Ernest and Delia’s, where the anniversary couple celebrates in bed by snacking on pilchards on toast (they’re out of sardines). We never see the bedroom of Trevor and Susannah, catalysts for the evening’s fractious action as their rapidly unraveling marriage impacts both the other couples and what goes on in those bedrooms.

Even after regular visits to Ayckbourn country–most recently in 2007's “Brits Off-Broadway” festival’s first New York staging of the eight interlocking plays titled Intimate Exchanges–I’m still astounded by the playwright’s mathematical precision, emotional complexity and biting satire. As usual, Bedroom Farce has its gimmick (the action unfolds nearly simultaneously in the three onstage bedrooms), but Ayckbourn transforms it into the very heart of his play. Ayckbourn’s genius is hiding his true intent by first concentrating on his plot’s intricacies, which gradually reveal a profound, hilarious character study with far more insight into human behavior than any ordinary farce.

The Actors Company Theatre’s current production puts to rest any worries about American actors in a small off-Broadway company tackling Ayckbourn’s quintessentially British works. Jenn Thompson’s crisply-paced staging gives us the full measure of Ayckbourn’s comic travails that are tinged with tragedy, all played out on Robin Vest’s nicely detailed set.

The four pairs of actors are exemplary, both singly and together. The standout, however, is Margaret Nichols’ wonderfully subtle portrait of Jan, a woman caught amidst her past, present and (possible) future. Nichols never loses our sympathy even while Jan is succumbing to Trevor while vulnerable from her bed-ridden husband’s crankiness. Nichols’ acting stands comparison with other stand-out Ayckbourn interpreters, like Janie Dee in Comic Potential and Bill Champion and Claudia Elmhirst in Intimate Exchanges, which is rarefied company indeed.

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