Friday, November 19, 2010

It's down the hatch on yet another dreadful Christmas Eve at Trinity Rep.
Alan Ayckbourn has been enjoying a revival of late, although there's still critical debate over where, exactly, he should be placed in the critical pantheon. But Trinity Rep's current production of Absurd Person Singular (perhaps his best play) makes a strong case for a higher rather than lower position. This broad, bright version has been under-sung in the local press, but it's probably the best night out at the theatre the region currently has to offer - it both plays to the crowd in bold, funny strokes, and yet (mostly) honors the piece's melancholic undertow, too.

Ayckbourn made his start in the British sex-comedy tradition, but sex is pretty far from everyone's mind in Absurd Person Singular - status is what these people are after (or what they have to lose). And note that last word in the title - everyone in Absurd is going at it alone, essentially, even though the play takes place over three consecutive years' worth of Christmas parties (in one of Ayckbourn's postmodern extrapolations of what used to pass for dramatic "unity"). In this dyspeptic view of the holiday season, everybody's feigning good cheer so much they don't even notice that every year, somebody's not waving but drowning (usually it's one of the wives stuck in the script's trio of dysfunctional marriages). Indeed, in the play's most notorious scene, one desperate homebody repeatedly attempts to take her own life at her own party, as the celebration carries on cluelessly around her (when she sticks her head in the oven, for instance, everybody assumes she's cleaning it).

That ghoulish congruence of hilarity and heartbreak probably sums up the tone of Absurd - and maybe of all of Ayckbourn - and the Trinity folks pretty much nail it. The production is a little cold (Michael McGarty's slightly surreal set makes that a given), and maybe a little cruel, but never quite heartless, and it holds us through its sense of high-powered ensemble. And director Brian McEleney is quite conscientious about noting Ayckbourn's many clues that large, Chehovian shifts in power are moving behind the scenes of these sad little domestic dust-ups. By the end the play, the bourgeois squirrels (Stephen Berenson and Angela Brazil) have worked their way to the top of the heap, while the bored - and boring - patricians (Timothy Crowe and Anne Scurria) are in utter disarray, and the pretentious bohemians (Phyllis Kay and Fred Sullivan, Jr.) have seen their marriage fall apart, but have somehow pasted it back together again (by, we guess, the wife finally putting her foot down about her husband's "dog").

The performances are all strong, but as is always the case, some are stronger than others.  I felt that if anyone in the cast stepped over the line into caricature, it was Angela Brazil, whose frenzied neatnik screeched in panic a little too often (Brazil would do better to concentrate on the pathos of her attempts to draw some attention from her avidly self-interested husband).  Likewise Phyllis Kay, though generally working in the right dry, world-weary vein as the play's would-be suicide, didn't quite have the devastated, 1000-yard-stare required to send her big scene into orbit.  The men were more consistently on point, though none matched Anne Scurria's turn as the condescending local luminary who is eventually brought low by economic circumstance.  This the best work I've seen from Scurria in some time, and it's certainly award-worthy - she ruled the last act of the play, in fact, as she wandered her kitchen in a housecoat, drunk out of her mind, and desperate to connect some emotional dots - any dots.  Hers was the most singularly absurd person in this sadly hilarious theatrical gallery.

No comments:

Post a Comment