Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sex, knowledge, and Alan Ayckbourn - or, can the climax of one play really be from another play?

A double dose of the author and his favorite subject.

This morning I'm pondering the first "half," if you will, of the regional premiere (at Providence's Trinity Rep) of Alan Ayckbourn's House and Garden, two companion plays that once more, in Ayckbourn's familiar fashion, contemplate adultery, the class system, the conventions of dinner theatre, and - well, epistemology in general.

Why "epistemology?"  Well, the "gimmick" of House and Garden is that the two halves of its diptych are meant to be performed simultaneously by the same cast - no, not on the same actual stage, but in adjacent theatres. Trinity is one of the few New England houses where this is even possible, so it's good news that their production (at least of House, I'll see Garden next week) has been placed in the capable hands of company vet Brian McEleny (who delivered a superb Absurd Person Singular a while back) and so is quite strong; yes, you should definitely make the trip down to Providence to see it (after a few missteps earlier this season, Trinity has come roaring back with this and their previous offering, Social Creatures).

Now Ayckbourn has long been intrigued by the problem of synchronicity in theatre, and particularly farce (I know it sounds hilarious to be using all these SAT words when discussing a sex comedy, but that's actually part of the joke). In The Norman Conquests, he gave us a trilogy of plays revealing every single facet of a serial adulterer - and all occurring on a single "dirty week-end;" in How the Other Half Loves, he combined two disastrous dinner parties, occurring on two different nights, but all in the same theatrical space.

You could argue (many have) that this only betrays the playwright's pleasure in his own cleverness. But I disagree; in his own way, Ayckbourn has been exploring troubling questions in his series of theatrical Rubik's cubes. And in House and Garden, I think he may have pulled off his most brazen conceptual coup yet.  It has been widely said (it's even part of Trinity's marketing) that each half of House and Garden can stand on its own two feet.  But that's only half-true (appropriately enough); indeed, to be honest, on the deepest level it's absolutely false. House and Garden are actually conjoined theatrical twins - they don't "orbit" each other, like the Norman plays; they are concretely and literally connected, like puzzle pieces.

In fact, in one particularly daring gambit, Ayckbourn actually replaces the climax of House with what I took to be the climax of Garden.  In the very spot where one would expect, in the structure of a "well-made" play, for the leads to have their face-off, or for some transformative revelation to drop, Ayckbourn instead drags on a set of supporting players, whom we guess have been going at it in the downstairs theatre, and we watch the climax of their drama instead. Which is not only barely interpretable (we've seen almost none of its building action, and indeed only glimpsed its central player), but stunningly weird: carving knives are brandished, murder seems to be in the air, incest is mentioned - the play's dinner-theatre conceits are dropped utterly and completely, and briefly chaos reigns onstage; in fact, even the more-familiar characters scream to each other, "What is going on?"

After something like a resolution, or even a reunion (?), this whole plot is packed off again to Garden (and House awkwardly resumes). But the resonance of its interpolation into the action lingers like an echo - and hence my musings on epistemology, or the study of what we can truly know - and whether we can truly know it. Looking back, it's clear that one of the deepest themes of Ayckbourn's oeuvre has been ignorance - perhaps because delusion and deceit are at the core of sex comedy. But Ayckbourn has consistently treated issues of ignorance in a complex manner that recalls the theatre of the absurd more than the dinner theatre - even if in his earlier works, he rarely left the audience as deeply in the dark as his benighted characters.

But with House and Garden (or at least in House, perhaps all the veils are lifted in Garden), the playwright has contrived to leave us as blind as his heroes and heroines.  Indeed, over and over again in House he constructs related comedies of isolation, misrepresentation, and miscommunication.  In one hilarious scene, everyone suddenly begins to speak French; in another, everyone decides (for various reasons) to utterly ignore a single character. Indeed, throughout most of the length of House, the leading lady pays no attention to her husband whatsoever, as payback for his adultery; she simply acts as if he isn't there - an ironic reflection of the fact that their marriage is only possible as long as she pretends his adultery isn't there. Which is likewise an intriguing epistemological mirror of the fact that we can't know why he betrayed her, or what that betrayal means ( because he never gets a chance to explain himself): for all we know, her version of events - sympathetic as it seems - may constitute its own form of betrayal.

Indeed, I've rarely been as struck as I was while watching House by what I didn't understand about what was going on; the awareness that a second, simultaneous version of events is unfolding elsewhere hangs over the action like a great, Pinteresque question mark.  Of course this is a trick played by other playwrights  (remember Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead?) but something about the tenor of Ayckbourn's conceptual conceits gets under your skin more than Stoppard ever did (after all, we know the plot of Hamlet) - and there's even an unusual hint of Pinterian menace to a few of his characters as well (a slimy political sociopath slithers repeatedly through the action, for instance).

Of course these epistemological questions may, in the end, only be a commercial trick - one certainly leaves House intrigued enough to cough up the bucks for a second ticket to Garden.  Then again, maybe the double nature of that gambit is part of Ayckbourn's theme, too (and of course it's worth remembering that the heady questions raised by House may only be deflated by its companion play).

The good news, though, is that however the playwright resolves the deeper questions of his diptych, he hasn't lost his flair for sex comedy (even if most of the whoopie, appropriately enough, happens in the garden, not the house).  Indeed, when Ayckbourn defiantly brought out a sexy housemaid, and had her bend over to do the vacuuming (revealing an almost hilariously alluring backside), I all but sighed there in my seat; the whole moment was like slipping into a warm, welcome bath of sexist nostalgia.  Ah, the thing itself, without apology - or irony! Trinity is still able to be frank about sex in a way we've lost sight of further north. For the theatre has gotten so damn feminized up here in Boston; I've seen almost every male actor I know in the nude on stage (even the playwrights are starting to show their junk!), and frankly, gay as I am, I'm actually getting bored with this particular politically-correct rite of passage (and sorry, but the "empowered," pseudo-dirty striptease of the new burlesque is hardly the real thing). To see a brilliant, heterosexual male cast a gimlet eye on feminine allure - God, it's like spotting a unicorn!  So all I can say is, yeah, baby, yeah - bring on the horn, Mr. Ayckbourn!  (And I'll see you in the Garden next week.)

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