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House and Garden

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The concept of actors' entrances and exits has apparently so entranced Alan Ayckbourn that he has written not one but two plays about it. Those two plays, House and Garden, are both now appearing at the Manhattan Theatre Club, one on each of the complex's stages. When an actor exits from the house into the garden in House, he or she appears just a few moments later coming from the house in Garden, playing in the other theater.

It's an intriguing concept with lots of fascinating possibilities. It's too bad that Ayckbourn has realized almost none of them in the creation of these two linked plays. He's counted on the concept to carry the day for both shows, and it does. Well, at least it does until the fascination you feel watching the actors (not the characters) wears off. Whether or not they'll make their cue in the other theater is about as exciting as either play gets.

Where did Ayckbourn go wrong? The idea itself was a sound one. He has created sort of an Upstairs/Downstairs situation, with Teddy and Trish Platt (Nicholas Woodeson and Jan Maxwell) living in the house, dealing with lots of relationship issues. Primarily, Teddy has cheated on Trish with their next-door neighbor, Joanna (Veanne Cox), but he is also courting a career in politics, urged on by the stylish Gavin Ryng-Mayne (Daniel Gerroll).

Meanwhile, Izzie, Warn, and Pearl (Patricia Conolly, James A. Stephens, and Laura Marie Duncan), servants employed by the Platts, are facing similar problems outside. Their own family unit is undergoing significant changes, and they must contend with the Platts, Joanna and her husband Giles (Michael Countryman), and the antic couple (John Curless and Ellen Parker) setting up the garden for a party that afternoon.

Despite the wonderful farcical and dramatic possibilities the work could achieve with such a setup, there's generally a lot of talk and not much action. Yes, some excitement is created briefly in Garden when Teddy frolics with a French film star (Olga Sosnovska) in a rain storm, and there are plenty of laughs to be found in House, in Trisha's utter ignoring of Teddy or explanation of the Platt family curse. But excitement and humor seldom occur together in either play, making both shows together seem like unnecessarily lengthy and dreary affairs. There's too much unhappiness and despair, and despite over a dozen main characters, there's no one to root for, and no one to care about.

One gets the sense from watching House and Garden that Ayckbourn intended each to stand on its own. Neither really does. Garden comes closer; by nature, it's more frivolous and comic, and its characters' peccadilloes are much easier to swallow. House, though more innately comic, is much more unpleasant, and it's difficult to find yourself caring too much about either the philandering Teddy or the overly enigmatic Trish, leaving the secondary characters (most of whom have more focus in Garden) the burden of making the whole mess entertaining. Luckily, they succeed often enough to forgive House its faults.

It's understandable that everyone might not be willing or able to see both plays (an unfortunate likelihood due to the theaters' different seating capacities), but the plays only offer anything approaching a fulfilling experience if you see both of them. John Lee Beatty's strikingly appointed sets are excellent in either case, and John Tillinger has provided adequate enough direction for both. But, as each play features too many story threads that are only appropriately dealt with in the opposite play, neither is complete alone.

If you are only able to see one, see Garden. You'll miss out on almost all of Jan Maxwell's intelligent, humorous performance (her onstage time in Garden can best be measured in seconds), but you'll get the more palatable story. If you can possibly swing both, do it for the novelty, but see House first. You'll regret less what is never allowed to develop and get funnier punch lines to Garden's poorly set-up jokes.

Still, each play has one perfect defining moment that almost makes the entire outing worthwhile. And strangely enough, they both occur at exactly the same time. The curtain calls are entertainingly staged, with the actors bowing, then racing off to the other theater to take their bows there, and then return, if necessary, a few moments later for the final audience acknowledgment. Jan Maxwell, in House, infused this moment with such joy and love, that it became clear for a tiny moment what House and Garden could have been.

What they are is not good enough. Two plays with one gimmick is fine, but there have to be two plays. Ayckbourn, with House and Garden, was barely able to find one.

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Manhattan Theatre Club
House and Garden
Stage I and Stage II, City Center, 131 West 55th Street
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 581-1212