Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Absurd Person Singular review

at Actor's Rep Theater (at SFCC) through Dec. 10

The title of Sir Alan Ayckbourn's comedy of sadness, Absurd Person Singular, has it about right: Our motives and actions are more absurd – and our lives more peculiar – than we'd like to admit.

A good production reminds us of why a play is worth reviving, and director Chad Henry's version of Absurd Person (through Dec. 10 at Actor's Rep) makes the case that Ayckbourn mingles serious commentary with slapstick farce about as well as anybody in the business. While Henry sometimes allows farce (a kitchen accident) and moodiness (marital squabbles) to linger on, he leavens emotions enough that we realize how much we're enjoying ourselves even as we're realizing why we're usually so sad during the holidays.

Three Christmas Eves, three distinct kitchens, three dysfunctional couples. Everyone living in denial, unable to face their own imperfections -- sounds like a real hoot, doesn't it?

Kathie Doyle-Lipe sets the opening scene, singing "Good King Wenceslas" in a falsetto, color-coordinated cleaning bottles dangling from her festive red holiday apron. Doyle-Lipe finds real sadness and desperation in all her compulsive cleaning. But then she's agoraphobic, so her husband has to pick her up and heave her through the kitchen door and out into the living room. Like so much of Ayckbourn's comedy, that's both a little funny and a little sad.

As the first-act underling hosting his superiors at a Christmas party, Reed McColm makes clear that he lords it over his wife around the house because he's getting bossed around all day at work.

McColm and Doyle-Lipe's characters, the social-climbing Hopcrofts, are the only two of the six characters we meet who don't at some point express contempt for themselves or the others. They may be inept, but in their own way, they do manage to extend the tradition of Christmas cheer. For his part, McColm delivers a master class in comedic acting – reacting to a condescending arm placed over his shoulder, laughing with an explosive ha-HA!, inserting an ineffectual wave when he's included into the men's confidence, but only as an afterthought.

As the banker's wife, Therese Diekhans swirls on imperiously, her blonde hair in a repressed bun, her martini glass extended just so. She's rich, dripping with condescension, and usually busy getting drunker. Diekhans delivers a scathing attack on middle-class tastelessness that, even as we know it to be hypocritical, emerges just as smooth as all the false compliments she’d been strewing about earlier.

Ayckbourn’s -- and director Henry’s -- mastery is most evident in the high-traffic farce of the second act, when a bunch of blind do-gooders scurry about, trying to improve their surroundings while comically oblivious to the real human suffering right beneath their noses.

Humor, after all, involves being insensitive. Guy slips on a banana peel, it’s hilarious; your feeble old grandma does the same, suddenly you’re the picture of concern. But when a wife laughs drunkenly at the humiliation of her husband, Ayckbourn is showing us an emblem of our own insensitivity: It’s funny, but it’s also cruel – and we're complicit in it. One fellow's affectionate enough to his wife, but also bosses her into cowering submission. We laugh, but a little uneasily. Some of our foibles sting.

ARt's APS features a lot of accomplished, confident actors. In a single, booming outburst at his drunk and complaining wife, Michael Weaver startles us into realizing the resentment his accomodating hubbie keeps pent up all the time.

Page Byers, in her finest performance at Actor’s Rep so far, wordlessly conveys the despair of a woman intent on killing herself. She's black around the eyes, black under the eyes, convinced that her husband regards her as "just a smudge on his marriage license." Wordlessly, she makes her character's second-act suicide attempts funny and yet, in the interim, full of desperate sadness -- not an easy acting stunt to pull off. Byers is the picture of sadness and frustration.

John Oswald catches the cynicism and self-loathing of an architect desperate for a commission and the next cuddle with a woman other than his dowdy wife.

The uncredited costumer accentuated several characterizations: the penny-pincher bundled up inside his own home, too cheap to turn on the heat; the too-perky hausfrau, resplendent in bright red Christmas apron with matching bottles dangling in color-coordinated pockets.

Set designer Michael McGiveney makes the three kitchens distinct, though the last two kitchens don’t seem nearly cluttered enough -- the whole point is that these couples are increasingly dysfunctional and we need a visual mess to reinforce the mess they’ve made of their lives.

Some reviewers (of the current Broadway production) have deemed Absurd Person a dated play. But what's dated about it? The women seem not to work outside the home, though in fairness they're all incapacitated in various ways. There's some snickering over adultery that suggests pre-AIDS insouciance about sex. (It's an early-'70s play.) But what else? Certainly being unhappy during the holidays hasn't gone out of style. The play could stand a little Americanizing, however – there's nothing quintessentially British about it. Just rewrite a few lines, and it might drive home for audiences here both the comedy and the sadness.

Still, the final dance of these six absurd and singular persons, while festive and funny, also has more than a touch of the sadistic in it. We may dance during the holidays, Ayckbourn seems to suggest, but we're also quite conscious of who's playing the music. We may not like it, but we know whose tune we're dancing to, and we'll survive by putting on a show of Christmas cheer.


At November 30, 2005 3:22 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you liked "Everyone Loves Raymond", you will love this one.
ART has another crowd pleaser,and once again Kathie Doyle-Lipe proves that she is the best in town at physical comedy.

At December 01, 2005 9:27 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are so right
I laughed so hard I was crying!
What a great show!

At December 01, 2005 10:06 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought Jamie Flannery did the set?

At December 01, 2005 10:11 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bobo will u give us your review of a Christmas Carol Please?

At December 01, 2005 11:47 AM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

The program credits Michael McGiveney for the (three) sets; I couldn't find a credited costumer.

I haven't seen Christmas Carol at the Civic and haven't written a review. (I was on vacation.) Ann Colford's review was in the Nov. 24 Inlander (Christmas mouse and cat on the cover) as the Arts Lead.

At December 01, 2005 3:49 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Be curious to see what you think Bobo?

At December 09, 2005 8:26 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kathie Doyle-Lipe's character in Absurd Person Singular is funny, sad and desperate, as you said, but she's hardly agoraphobic. An agoraphobic would never run off to the store or go to Christmas parties at other people's houses. She's more than a little bit compulsive, perhaps, but that's not the same thing.

At December 10, 2005 11:30 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whatever she is or isn't, she is brilliantly hilarious! I have seen this show three times now and it just gets funnier and funnier! Keep up the great work!

At December 10, 2005 3:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, now, this is what makes horse races, isn't it...because I would rather sit through a dozen productions of THE FANTASTICKS, good ones or bad, than spend one more minute with Ayckbourn's unpleasant characters, no matter how well played.

At December 10, 2005 6:10 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, you go and have fun with that!


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