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Merry New England

Time for a little tte--tte and barb-to-barb

If the British have a love-hate relationship with the French, it could be said that Americans have a laugh-hate relationship with the Brits. What we find riotously funny in them is what we abhor in ourselves: repressed sexuality, sniveling impishness, and hostility behind a thin veneer of civility. Words like bum, bloke, and shite only superficially denote an English comedy. What really sets it apart is the singularly British ability to turn tragedy into farce without relinquishing one iota of despair. Who else can interrupt a scathing battle of wits or a barroom brawl promptly at 3:00 p.m. for a civilized moment of tea-sipping and crumpet-munching if not the queen's loyal subjects? English playwright Alan Ayckbourn's most recent works are known for this mixture of Earl Grey civility and bawdy buffoonery that can be pulled off only on the other side of the Atlantic. Ayckbourn has been called a one-man renaissance, and to date he is the most prolific English playwright in history (more prolific than Shakespeare himself, English commentators like to boast). As the artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough, England, he spends most of the year directing other writers' scripts, occasionally directing and debuting a play of his own.

In past years Ayckbourn's work has become known for its darkly humorous look at the British middle class. Things We Do for Love, currently being produced at Actors' Playhouse, simply isn't as challenging and dark as works like Absent Friends and The Revengers' Comedies. But Actors' Playhouse director David Arisco has assembled an excellent troupe with the talent to play out this romantic farce to its potential. Best friends from high school Barbara Trapes (Lisa Morgan) and Nikki Wickstead (Sandra Ives) haven't seen each other for eleven years. Nikki has recently escaped an abusive relationship and believes she has found true love with her husband-to-be, Hamish Alexander (Gordon McConnell). Nikki and Hamish plan to stay in Barb's upstairs flat (um, apartment for you non-Anglophiles) until their house is ready.

Nikki and Barb are undeniably opposites. Nikki dresses like an adolescent and acts like a grade-school girl. Strutting around in tight leather pants and low-cut shirts, she shrieks with excitement over just about anything. In short she is what people call "well meaning" to avoid using words like dumb. Barbara, on the other hand, has evolved into a modern mutation of corporate spinster. She works as an executive assistant, lives alone, and is quick to let you know she prefers it that way: "Give me a good book, a hot water bottle, and some nice music."

A significant part of the first half of Things We Do for Love is comprised of some heart-to-heart chats between Barb and Nikki, which could be summed up as follows:

Discourse One: Independence

Barb: "You have choices: live alone or compromise. I choose to live alone."

Nikki: "I can't. I tried it. I wilt."

Discourse Two: Codependence

Barb: "No, you are not a born victim."

Nikki: "But it all happens because of love."

Things We Do for Love is a modern farce, a comedy of stereotypes, and Nikki's and Barb's philosophies can be gleaned from a few swift lines. Within the first three minutes of the play, the fact that Barb and Nikki are stereotypes becomes obvious: Barb is the prude, Nikki the sexpot. These wide brush strokes and easily recognizable characters are fundamental to farce and are enough to launch the comedy. But we don't need all the explication of Nikki's horrible relationship and Barb's spinster status. What makes a farce funny is the idiosyncratic portrayal of these stereotypical characters. We see this as soon as the plot takes off; unfortunately that doesn't happen until the end of the second half. To outline the plot here won't give much away: Hamish and Barb can't stand each other; consequently, of course, they must end up in bed. Nikki turns out to be frigid beneath her sexy surface, while Barb is a kettle of lust about to boil over. Throw in Gilbert (Gary Marachek), a cross-dressing postal worker/handyman who lives downstairs and is hopelessly smitten with Barb, and the foursome is complete.

Ayckbourn has worked in theater as a director, writer, actor, stage manager, scene painter, prop maker, and lighting-and-sound technician. His in-depth knowledge of the theater is apparent in his plays, which often are noted for their interesting use of theatrical sets, as in The Norman Conquests, a trilogy of plays that show simultaneous events in the dining room, living room, and garden of the same house during one weekend. The set of Things We Do For Love possesses that same vitality and gives the audience the perverse voyeuristic thrill that comes with seeing everything at once.

The set also is fertile ground for the burgeoning upstairs-downstairs farce at the center of the play. The only level fully visible to the audience is the ground floor of Barb's home. Above it the audience can see the bottom quarter of Nikki and Hamish's room; below it, the top quarter of Gilbert's basement flat. When Barb and Hamish are upstairs having sex while Nikki is downstairs behind a closed door singing at the top of her lungs, the virtually empty set, full of contradiction, takes on hilarious proportions. This scene is a perfect example of "less is more" -- the audience can see only pants flying and feet jumping, accompanied by the crescendo of the prep school anthem and the guttural orgasms of Barb and Hamish.

In his basement apartment, Gilbert is visible only when he's on the ladder painting a nude mural of Barb on his ceiling. Lighting allows us to see the door to his basement apartment opening and closing, implying his presence without overstating it. Ayckbourn wisely chose not to make the upstairs mirror what is happening downstairs. The partial view of the two floors creates the ideal slapstick component in this farce.

Morgan, as Barbara, is the master of deadpan responses. Her dry, sarcastic remarks provide a hilarious respite from Nikki's effusive babble and Gilbert's nebbishy soliloquies. The authenticity of Morgan's portrayal comes from her excellent control of voice, timing, and delivery. From stodginess to unbridled lust, her range cannot be doubted for a second. Her performance in New Theatre's production of Never the Sinner last season, in which she played both an insular psychiatrist and a giddy, dopey coed, evidenced the actress's talent. The dynamic between Barb and Hamish is the heart of the play, and its buildup from the contemptuous to the carnal is largely based on Morgan's and McConnell's abilities to keep the malicious comments just below the surface, beneath cool British civility. Referring to the lack of a man in her life, Barb comments wryly: "The only reason would have been to have children, and I can't stand them, so it doesn't matter." The British have an uncanny skill for talking about themselves as if they were observing someone else, which is key to the fa├žade of farce.

In the end Things We Do for Love is another enjoyable but safe crowd pleaser at Actors' Playhouse. It didn't have to be. In one scene we find Gilbert sprawled out on the landing of the stairs in a designer evening gown; in another an allusion is made to a crush Nikki had on Barb in high school. This strained sexuality is the stuff of British bedroom bawdiness, and Ayckbourn's failure to develop this further is surprising -- doing so might have added some substance. Actors' Playhouse does appear to be showing a consistent interest in Ayckbourn's works, having produced Communicating Doors just last season. I hope this theater group will take on something a bit edgier and more challenging in the future. It certainly has the production capabilities and sophisticated actors to pull it off.


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