Friday, June 28, 2013

Round and round Ayckbourn's Garden with Trinity Rep

Phyllis Kay and Fred Sullivan, Jr. - Ayckbourn's would-be Pyramus and Thisbe.  Photos: Mark Turek.

As Hub Review readers may recall, I left Trinity Rep's production of Alan Ayckbourn's House hungry to see his Garden (they both close this weekend, so hurry). House had been riddled with curious lacunae, and actually climaxed with a scene that seemed like the culmination of Garden; so I imagined that once I'd seen both sides of this dramatic diptych (which is meant to be played simultaneously, on adjacent stages), the two scripts would click together thematically like hand in glove.

Silly me. Garden is certainly worth seeing, but as things turn out, it's quite different from House - thematically, structurally, tonally - indeed, in almost every way possible. The scripts do share that climactic hinge, but aside from that, Garden doesn't re-inforce its sister play's structure so much as sprawl away from it in new directions.

This is perhaps bad for the unity of this dramatic double feature. But oddly, it may be good for Alan Ayckbourn; it's certainly intriguing to see the playwright experimenting at this stage of his career (he's 74, and has penned 70 plays. although House and Garden date from 1999), particularly given he's probing loaded questions around incest and drug use - not to mention the fading illusions of the commercial artiste. If some of what he attempts here doesn't quite come off, or seems to undermine the very structure he so ably set up in House - well, I found such sins easy to forgive, because the play stays clever to the end - and it's worth noting that together House and Garden count for a full five hours of dramatic construction (that's more than three full plays from any of our millennial playwrights). What's more, the forking paths of Garden seem to connect to the arc of Ayckbourn's output in oddly resonant ways; indeed, sometimes the script seems to be sending de-stabilizing roots down beneath his entire sex-comedy oeuvre.

Of course if all that sounds a little heady, or heavy, you can always ignore the deep end of Ayckbourn's themes and just enjoy the superficial garnishes of the form, which he's still happy to serve up. Yes, people actually "do it" in the Edenic bushes in Garden (as the flora sways above them, and old Adam himself wanders by with a mower) - and yes, that's still funny. Likewise the dry fountain at the center of Eugene Lee's overgrown set inevitably spurts in a highly phallic way. (Yuk-yuk.) But in the background of this slapstick, one character goes steadily mad; another escapes her domineering husband by hitching a ride with a possible sex criminal; and another world-weary lover is led off against her will to rehab. One marriage collapses just as the adultery that destroyed it collapses, too - and even as we watch another, faithful marriage grow more and more suffocating by the second. Ayckbourn has always worked in a surprisingly dark vein (remember the homemaker who keeps trying to commit suicide in Absurd Person Singular?) - but this time he lets the personal devastation all but run riot.

Steven Jaehnert and Bridget Saracino make remarkable acting debuts.

He even turns the dramatic knife on himself, believe it or not. The thematic climax of Garden is a long, improbably charming scene between Ayckbourn's aging lothario, Teddy (Fred Sullivan, Jr.) and a visiting French film star, Lucille (Phyllis Kay, both at top).  Teddy speaks no French, and Lucille has little English, but they embark on a fling anyway - and their "communication" in two separate tongues floats effortlessly between barbed satire and comic rue (it helps if you can at least follow along roughly in French). Lucille understands her own moral position far better than Teddy does, but at the same time she still hangs on to some sense of romantic possibility. She knows she's only a B-level star - one who dreamed of being a classical actress but who is now paid well to be offed by terrorists in the first reel. She has even been convicted of drug trafficking (an interesting metaphor for what commercial actors do in an artistic sense?), and faces a grueling cold-turkey treatment at the local clinic. But still she rhapsodizes about Pyramus and Thisbe, and Baucis and Philemon, all in French - while Teddy can only mumble "I don't know who any of those people are . . ."

Kay is peerless through all this, while Sullivan is his usual confidently comic self (although his Teddy isn't very far from a lot of other Fred Sullivan, Jr. performances). Kay is matched by a sterling turn from Anne Scurria as Teddy's long-suffering (and fed-up) wife, and a subtly tragic one from Stephen Thorne as his cuckolded best friend. Alas, the usually-reliable Angela Brazil only brings mania, rather than true melt-down, to Teddy's psychologically unstable paramour, and somehow the talented trio of Janice Duclos, Catherine Dupont, and Barry Press didn't quite make their Edenic ménage come off believably. But this double production did conceal a double acting surprise, in the performances of newcomers Steven Jaehnert and Bridget Saracino. In the roles of the children of the adulterers, who are feeling their own way toward romance, these two were highly compelling throughout - and Jaehnert in particular was remarkable. It seems clear that under the direction of company vet Brian McEleny, Trinity has mounted another acting-ensemble-of-the-year contender. And they have demonstrated that even after 70 plays, Alan Ayckbourn is still a vital dramatic force.

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