Absurd Person Singular at ACT Theatre
Plays like Sir Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular were the foundation on which ACT Theatre built its long and successful reputation. How fitting then, that after a dire financial situation imperiled the future of the company, a somewhat abbreviated 2003 season is opening with an ACT equivalent of comfort food: former ACT artistic director Jeff Steitzer's slam-bang staging of the comedy, peopled with a veritable who's who cast of local actors.
Ayckbourn's more mature works (darker hued affairs like The Revengers' Comedies and Communicating Doors) are certainly more of a satisfying theatrical meal than this trifle showing three British couples entertaining in their homes on three successive Christmas eves. The script plays out in three acts (and on three impressively detailed and varied sets by Don Yanik) and feels like an overextended sitcom you might see on PBS or BBC America. Its place in the Ayckbourn canon is equivalent to what Come Blow Your Horn or Barefoot in the Park are in Neil Simon's. The script is a best a mildly amusing, superficial, one-liner festival.
Michael Winters, Marianne Owen, Liz McCarthy,
R. Hamilton Wright, Julie Briskman & Larry Paulsen
Fortunately, Steitzer is a master of farcical comedy, and his veteran Seattle cast had the opening night audience at ACT in stitches. The socially inept Sidney Hopcroft and his happily fanatic homemaker wife Jane host Christmas number one. Larry Paulsen plays Sidney's grating charmlessness and incessant sniggering to perfection, and Julie Briskman's Jane is dowdily ingratiating and oddly sympathetic as she struggles to entertain couples in a higher social strata. Briskman is the visual comic highlight of the play as a rain-soaked Jane who has gone out for a supply of club soda and been locked out.
Couple #2 two, philandering bounder Geoffrey Jackson and his increasingly desperate wife Eva, are obviously an accident waiting to happen in the relatively brief stage time in act one. Act two, set in their kitchen, has Eva vainly and wordlessly trying every suicide trick in the book to no avail, and to the ignorance of the other couples who meet up with a variety of household maladies trying to be helpful. R. Hamilton Wright is his customarily acerbic self as Geoffrey while Liz McCarthy as Eva walks that fine line between comedy and tragedy effortlessly as the character sinks further into the abyss.
The third act is set in the swankier home of low-key banker Ronald Brewster-White and his venomous spouse Marion. Michael Winters is a model of comic understatement as Ronald, even finding subtleties in his act two scene in which he suffers an nasty electrical shock, and Marianne Owen does some of her best recent work as the increasingly alcoholic Marian.
Steitzer paces the play briskly, and every slapstick moment pays off well. However, a bit of trimming and finding a way to do the play with only one intermission might have made for a zestier production overall. Rick Paulsen's lighting design is accomplished, and Rose Pederson's costumes are amusing and appropriate.
For longtime ACT audiences, Absurd Person Singular is probably an ideal way to kick off this crucial season in the company's history. More adventurous fare like Albee's The Goat or Who is Sylvia? (up next at ACT) is happily not being ignored in their programming, and that is all to the good.
Absurd Person Singular runs at ACT Theatre 700 Union St. in downtown Seattle, through August 3. For further information visit ACT's web-site at www.acttheatre.org.