Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Playhouse West Production Of Alan Ayckbourn's How The Other Half Loves
Also see Richard's review of A Christmas Carol
Playhouse West is currently presenting the Alan Ayckbourn farce How the Other Half Loves at their theatre in Walnut Creek, Ca. I consider myself an Ayckbourn aficionado since I have seen many of this British playwright's works on trips to the UK. He is the world's most frequently produced playwright, with the exception of William Shakespeare. Ayckbourn has penned 56 plays, and he is considered "the English Neil Simon" or "the Moliere of the middle class." Although the playwright's presentations are wildly popular in the United Kingdom, they have yet to be highly successful here in the United States. The main reason is that American actors just cannot get the timing or the Britishness of his plays. The actors have to be top flight actors schooled in farce. They have to be droll and not overact in many of the scenes.
How the Other Half Loves was first presented at the Theatre in Scarborough on July 31, 1969. It moved to the West End on August 5, 1970, with Robert Morley taking on the role of Frank Foster, Heather Sears as Teresa and Joan Tetzel as Fiona. The play had its American debut in New York in 1971. The play was "Americanized" with the location changed to the New York area and featured Phil Silvers, Tom Aldredge, Sandy Dennis and Richard Mulligan. It was not a big success, playing only 104 performances. There was a revival of the play in the '80s that we saw at the Lyric Theatre in London. The play has been presented by many regional and college companies, and even a high school in Fresno presented it several years ago.
How the Other Half Loves is about three couples linked by an adulterous affair. Each of the couples is divided by class (this is more prevalent in the British version). What they have in common is that none of them are happy. Fiona Foster (Taylor Brock) and Bob Phillips (Sean J. O'Neil) are having an affair without the knowledge of Bob's boss Frank Foster (Bob Lieberman). Bob's wife Teresa (Tara Blau) has no knowledge of the affair either. The play starts with one little white lie that Fiona tells her husband to cover up the affair. She hoodwinks her easily deluded husband - one of the most naive persons in theater history. Fiona tells him she has been out late at night on a mission of mercy to console Mary Featherstone (Lois Hansen), the distraught wife of one of his employees, dedicated company man William Featherstone (Tim Hendrixson). The husband believes that his employee William is a big philanderer but is really a very mousy accountant.
Of course, Mr. Ayckbourn contrives to bring them all together in a wild dinner party that occurs on two separate nights with different hosting couples. All this in just one long scene; this alone is worth the price of admission. What happens after that is pure pandemonium with the maligned Featherstones not having a clue as to what is going on. The misinformed spouses try to figure out just what is happening and attempt to play catch up while the guilty parties work frantically overtime to cover up their illicit affair. Lois Grandi's production is the American version with New York references.
The production on the small bandbox stage contains just one singular living room/dining room so you are able to observe both households at exactly the same time. They occupy the same space without knowledge of each other. This is a hard thing to pull off. Even the hilarious dinner party scenes when the guests are shared, with Mary and William being at the Fosters on Friday night and then at Phillips on Saturday night, are all in the same continuous scene and at a special "cross" table. It is brilliant writing and timing.
The six cast members are good for a regional production, all with American accents. However, I miss the Ayckbourn feel of the play. I refer to what Peter Hall, the former National Theatre director says: "To play Ayckbourn's characters properly you have to dig deep, be serious, and then get laughed at. It wounds the personality because above all, the audience much believes these silly people and their hopeless spiral into chaos. One false move and the spells are broken." Lois Grandi, the director, should be congratulated for attempting to get these six actors an Ayckbourn feel. In some of the scenes, she succeeds.
The play starts out very slowly with only the Fosters and Phillps on stage. Brock, Lieberman, O'Neil and Blau seem to be trying to get into character. They looked somewhat tired and there is little emotion or movement in that first scene. Also, the timing is not there. However, in the side-splitting cocktail and dinner scenes, everyone perks up. Taylor Brock is marvelous as she tries to entertain the dull innocent couple being played by Lois Hansen and Tim Hendrixson. Ms. Hansen is outstanding as the guest with no social skills. Her facial expressions are brilliant. In the dinner scene, Tara Blau as Teresa displays superb acting ability as she proceeds to get intoxicated and loud on a bottle of wine. It is wild to watch Hansen and Hendrixson trying to extricate themselves from the two dinner parties. Bob Lieberman does an excellent characterization of a very dense husband and Sean J O'Neil makes a good lager lout (the British term for a heavy beer drinker) . However, he does tend to go over the top occasionally.
Love's second act is more farce with some of it going completely over the top. The characters run in and out of scenes, use vaudeville comic falls and have more onerous battles with facts. Everything comes out ok at the end.
How the Other Half Loves ran through December 15. The next production will be West Coast Premiere of Joanna Murray-Smith's Nightfall, which opens on January 24th. Playhouse West is located in downtown Walnut Creek at 1345 Locust Street, Walnut Creek, Ca.