Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Michael Frayn's Alarms And Excursions
The Aurora Theatre is presenting the west coast premiere of Michael Frayn's 1998 farce Alarms and Excursions, running until December 22. Frayn revisits the wild chaos of his earlier hit Noises Off in these eight short plays held together by the simple thread of modern technology, which is meant to make our lives easier, but as shown in these playlets, really torments us.
I saw the original production of Alarms at the Gielgud Theatre in London during the fall of 1998. The four-person cast included the wonderful Felicity Kendal and Josie Lawrence taking the female parts and Nicky Henson and Robert Bathurst taking the male counterparts. The production ran about six months to good reviews. The London Times called it "simply breathtakingly, comfortingly and appallingly funny."
Director Soren Oliver has assembled a glossy cast and staged production at the Aurora. Alarms' tales are about gizmos, doodads and persons on the blink. Four very talented actors give impeccable timing and great absurdity to each of the tales. It is a most entertaining evening with several of the plays being riotously funny.
The first sketch involves an intimate dinner party where the gadget-happy hosts, played by John Oswald and Lee Ann Manley, have invited their luckless close friends, played by Adam Ludwig and Jennifer Wagner, to dinner. The electrical devices, such as the smoke alarm, the electronic wine cork screw and car alarms, all go wrong. The telephone answering machine issues menacing phone messages which the couple cannot pickup because they have a strange intercom system throughout the house. This all has the hallmark of a classic farce, and it looks like a scene from the second act of Noises Off.
The second sketch, at 40 minutes, is the longest of the eight scenes and involves two travel-worn English couples traversing in Europe by car in something like If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. There is a cleverly constructed set showing two identical hotel rooms separated by a thin wall. This skit is cunningly written to show awkward complications and the dissatisfactions of traveling on a daily basis. On one side are the eager to please Adam Ludwig and his wife Jennifer Wagner, while on the other side are prickly John Oswald and his long-suffering wife Lee Ann Manley. What happens during this forty minute scene is something to see and hear.
The second act contains the remaining scenes which are short in length. Several do not come up to the level of farce seen in the first two sketches. The airline safety spiel a stewardess announces before the plane takes off is much too long and really not very funny. There is an act called "Glassnost" which is brilliantly acted by Lee Ann Manley about a Margaret Thatcher type politician who has a planned speech on regionalization in the watercress industry, but she is doomed by an auto-cued electronic operator. "Toasters" is somewhat clever with a chairman's pep talk to his three employees who are burdened by briefcases, wine glasses, plates, documents - all trying to do the right thing like clapping, drinking toasts and going through a large book of statistics all at once. There is a scene called "Leavings," in which a tired guest couple won't depart, but it goes on much too long and loses its point very rapidly. Also "Heart to Heart" is somewhat interesting about some misunderstandings developing between a male and female at a very loud party. These are amusing parodies with the cast doing excellent comic acting.
Alarms' most hilarious playlet is the last scene involving a polite German visitor who arrives at Gatwick Airport to visit friends in the London area. The wife of the host sends the husband to Heathrow and everything centers around the telephone answering machine in the host's home. The hostess who comes home keeps changing the answering device causing both the husband and the German visitor race around trying to find each other. Getting into the act is a dotty mother who has come also to visit her daughter, the hostess. Everything becomes disastrous, especially to the visitor who stumbles painfully into an accident and emergency receiving ward. Adam Ludwig is brilliant as the German guest and the performances of the three remaining actors are very crisp.
Alarms and Excursions/i> is a very funny evening of marital discord and technological disruption. It plays through December 22 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, Ca. For tickets call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org .
Their next production is Eugene Ionesco's absurdist masterpiece The Chairs, which opens January 31.