Also see Ann's review of Crowns

Jane Summerhays and Tress Glover
Though developed as part of the Damsels In Distress trilogy (three unconnected plays sharing the same set and cast), Alan Ayckbourn's RolePlay is (by special permission) a standalone play in its first U.S. production at the O'Reilly Theatre for Pittsburgh Public Theater. Take the already stressful situation of a "meet the parents" dinner hosted by the betrothed couple, up the tension level with parents of opposite polarity (hers stiflingly close and traditional, his irresponsible and drunk) plus the dropping in (literally) of two surprise guests of the lower-class, mobster-connected type and you have the perfect setup for an Ayckbourn comedy. Unfortunately, the farcical adventures increase in hilarity only to evaporate at the play's ending. Despite the lack of a satisfying conclusion, there is much to enjoy in RolePlay.

Julie-Ann (Tressa Glover) and Justin (Brian Hutchison) spend the afternoon discussing how to make a success of the evening's event: an intimate dinner party in their riverside London flat to announce their engagement tom and introduce to each other, her parents (Cynthia Darlow and Ross Bickell) and his mother (Jane Summerhays). It is occasions like this that often bring out the worst in people, which is lucky for us, as there's nothing better than watching the calamitous ruin of a dinner party on a theatre stage.

Glover is annoying right from the start as Julie-Ann, which turns out to be a fine example of natural acting (though, had she started a bit slower, we may have understood how Justin could have fallen for her to begin with). Julie-Ann's nervous tics and uptightness build to a fever pitch, especially when she is joined by her equally annoying parents, Derek and Dee Jobson (how apropos that their pet name for their daughter is "Apple" - she hasn't fallen far from the tree). Glover, Darlow and Bickell play this nails-on-the-chalkboard trio with inspired vexation. Though most of their funniest bits involve braying laughter, their shining comedic moment is quite silent as the parents react to Julie-Ann and a very out of character costume change. As the play's grounding rod, Justin struggles to maintain his sanity as his world crumbles around him. Hutchison does well as the straight man, with the responsibility of reacting to every bizarre, uncomfortable thing happening in Justin's formerly calm world. You can almost hear him counting down as life as he knows it approaches extinction. Summerhays is superb as Justin's mother Arabella, the grande lush. She sweeps into the room like Auntie Mame and passes out, face down on the couch with equal flourish.

The two special guests of the evening are mobster girlfriend/former "dancer" Paige Petite (Meredith Zinner), who is trying to run away from her abusive boyfriend, and mobster "security" man Micky Rale (Mark Mineart), whose job it is to keep her around. Both characters are close to caricature, but provide great contrast for the others, who are more real in comparison. Zinner is charming as this b-girl with a tarnished heart of gold, and Rale plays the big, blustering gunman with a sensitive side well also. These two bring trouble, yet it is because of their presence that the other characters realign their "roles" before the play ends. That ending, though, seems to fizzle after the high level of absurdity in the rest of the play.

James Noone scores again with yet another impressive set design for the O'Reilly's thrust stage. The London apartment is well accessorized, and the rainy balcony makes a great setting for Paige's surprise entrance. Costumes by Martha Louise Bromelmeier are perfect, and the lighting (Kirk Bookman) and music/sound (Zach Moore) complete a pretty picture.

I get the feeling Ted Pappas had fun directing this piece. He always has great success with "busy" shows, making wonderful use of the stage, and is great at keeping the pace at the right level.

Though the journey may be more enjoyable than the destination in RolePlay, I highly recommend a visit, if only to meet these characters.

Pittsburgh Public Theater's American premiere of RolePlay, on stage now until October 23. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit or the box office at 621 Penn Avenue.

Photo: Ric Evans

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-- Ann Miner

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