|Ayckbourn's characters share a cup of Christmas cheer in Absurd Person Singular. Photo: A.R. Sinclair.|
I'm a bit surprised by the positive reviews for the Nora Theatre's Absurd Person Singular (through August 25 at the Central Square Theatre). But perhaps the production only disappointed because it comes close on the heels of the crackling Trinity Rep rendition from a year or two ago. If you hadn't seen that, the Nora version might strike you as, well, good enough; it mostly gets the job done with this Alan Ayckbourn classic - or at least, it ends up in pretty much the right place. But I have to point out that a fumbling first act, and one or two misconceived performances, in the end compromise the tight arc the comedy should have taken in getting there.
Situations like this are a persistent dilemma for critics. Few members of the Nora audience are going to have caught the higher-octane Trinity version, after all - so if you're writing for them, a big thumbs up for this pretty-good show is probably in order. Only - am I writing for them? Not really - the Nora doesn't even invite me to their press openings anymore (like Harvard, I guess they don't have the confidence). It just so happens that I was interested in seeing Absurd anyhow, as I usually admire director Daniel Gidron's chops when it comes to farce; plus he'd cast a number of people who know their way around Ayckbourn. So I went on my own dime; I even paid full price.
At first I thought this was going to prove a big mistake, but to be fair, my disappointment was particularly acute only in the first part of Ayckbourn's dyspeptic holiday triptych. The play ribs sentimentality, and Charles Dickens in particular, with visits to Christmases past, present, and future - in which we watch three couples stagger through a trio of parties which all go down in flames in separate ways. The parallels between these scenes are striking - each disaster is driven by a feminine meltdown, provoked by a husband who either ignores it or tries to disguise it; each occurs in a kitchen, that refuge from "official" social interaction to which these revelers reliably beat a panicked retreat (often to avoid a dreaded fourth couple, who are never seen). Over and over again, we perceive, beneath all the holiday cheer, that everyone onstage is essentially alone - misunderstood, absurd, and singular, just as the title tells us. But what's remarkable about Ayckbourn's achievement is that even as he rings changes on a stable set of themes and tropes, he also constructs a striking dramatic arc: over the course of the play, the eager bourgeois strivers at the bottom of the totem pole scramble their way to the top, while those initially at the summit find themselves heading for the bottom.
So it's a fascinating play - on the surface, it seems "thin," pasted together out of sex-comedy snickers and cast-off Neil Simon gags; yet just beneath those matinee-audience mechanisms there's a surprising intellectual "thickness," as well as an intricate structure, not to mention a disturbingly jaundiced view of what kind of emotional bond is really possible between the sexes.
At the Nora, you get the impression that director Gidron and company do understand Ayckbourn's vision in general. But the devil, as they say, is always at play in the details, and the cast at first puts its collective foot wrong several times in a row. The script's snob telegraphs her haughtiness far too obviously, for instance, and her cold-fish husband lacks any edge of resentment; even more problematically, another, up-and-coming husband comes off as a squirrel, when he's really a weasel in disguise; and the actress playing his wife seems to miss entirely the moment when she suddenly sees through him (although elsewhere I felt that chirpy newcomer Samantha Evans definitely showed potential).
Still, things do move uphill, largely thanks to Liz Hayes and Bill Mootos as the damaged, self-destructive hipsters who dominate the second act. I'd never cast the essentially balanced and sturdy Hayes in the role she has - as a wannabe suicide who, when she goes all Sylvia Plath on her philandering husband and sticks her head under the gas, finds that her actions are interpreted as simply an overwhelming desire to clean the oven. But Hayes convinced me nonetheless, with a brilliantly detailed (and utterly silent) portrayal built on mordant, doomed wit. (Mootos' role is really a supporting one, but he underplayed it nicely, with a coolly arrogant confidence.)
The comic momentum carried on into the final act, in which Stephanie Clayman made up for most of her initial missteps with a breakdown that was both comic and touching. But Steve Barkhimer, while certainly nailing all his laughs, lacked the literally cold center that makes his role memorable (this particular husband has actually turned off the heat in the middle of winter - an emotional and sexual metaphor if ever there was one).
So we leave feeling we've glimpsed Ayckbourn's sad, satiric insights here and there, but hardly basked in the chill of his total vision. Still, the production could serve as a valuable starting point for those looking for a point of entry into his canon. I'm certainly glad that this playwright is finally, at the end of his career, receiving the serious attention that has long been his due. But I would have been much happier seeing the Nora attempt to scale one of his obscurities (or even one of his forgotten successes), rather than only get half-way up a familiar classic.