Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Unseen by fellow house occupants but fully visible to us as the oft-howling audience, a person on one floor may unknowingly be standing between two quarreling others a floor above who are screaming that "something's coming between us" while in another scene, a man looks to us to be sniffing the bent-over bottom of a woman who is actually a couple of floors above him. Such is only a fraction of the craziness of Ayckbourn's Taking Steps, with the director of Pear Theatre's current production, Troy Johnson, finding seemingly hundreds of ways to exploit and exaggerate both the real and the illusionary misunderstandings, mix-ups and mishaps the playwright has inserted into a play where not only the house but most of the human relationships within it are falling to pieces.
Elizabeth Crabbe not only purports to "loathe this house" where she and her husband Roland have been living for three-and-a-half months, she appears to have no better feelings for the spouse who is set to buy "The Pines" this very day. The play opens as her visiting brother Mark is reading the "Dear John" letter she is leaving for Roland to find later, doing so while she finishes packing in order to escape the house and the husband. Even though Mark reminds her that Roland treats her like a goddess, Elizabeth replies with rolling eyes, that "after about ten minutes, it gets very, very boring" to be that goddess. But as we will see during the next two hours and forty-five minutes (including intermission), Elizabeth is rather like a yo-yo in trying to decide whether to run out the door or to hop back into her bridal bed with this man she supposedly loathes so much.
Betsy Kruse Craig plays this former dancer and now wife-on-the-run with greatly exaggerated fling and flair. She often illustrates a point she verbally makes with a sudden whirling, leaping, or full-on-leg-split demonstration of her former professionleaving us with the clear impression that she probably had never been a pirouetting star with that much grace or fame. While she explains her intents to leave her husband to a brother who begs her to reconsider, Kruse's Elizabeth pronounces her London-accented words with such exacting that her lips hilariously exercise themselves as if in an aerobics class.
As she unloads to him, brother Mark himself, played by David Boyll, is whining about his own relationship issues, his fiancée Kitty having left him before they could tie the knot and then having moved on to take up the trade of soliciting sex from men who pay. He still pines for his Kitty even though she is facing prostitution charges. He still hopes to win her back, to convince his brother-in-law for a loan, and to leave his current, boring job in personnel to open a fishing shop (with Kitty at his side, of course). In the meantime, we begin to see part of Mark's problem of attraction: every time he talks for more than a minute using his big-toothy grins or over-done sobbing for emphasis, whoever is listening to him inevitably falls fast asleep.
This being a multi-storied house, people enter often without others in the house always knowing they are there (as we, of course, are seeing these same people actually a few feet or less apart, often walking past or stopping to pause right next to each other). Coming into a darkened living room while Elizabeth is still packing above is a fumbling, stumbling (but also totally endearing to us as a watching audience) Tristam Watsona young, extremely green, and thus insecure-in-his-trade solicitor from a London legal firm whose name he cannot seem ever to remember. There is a lot of Charlie Chaplin in this young guy whose widely open mouth and eyes full of fright often look like those of a deer staring at approaching headlights.
Arriving to provide the legal papers for Roland to sign to buy his dream (but Elizabeth's nightmare) house, the sometimes stuttering and often tongue-tied Tristam becomes in many ways the play's central character. If there is a major surprise or a last-minute mix-up (especially between the sheets), he somehow always seems to be therethat is when he is not picking himself up from the floor from his latest fall off the couch or is not untwisting his lanky legs and arms from the curled-up position he has chosen to lock himself into while trying to sit quietly and unnoticed. Max Tachis is nothing short of brilliant as Tristam Watson, employing a seemingly unending repertoire of looks, sounds, and poses that at any second may freeze into a live version of a frame worthy of a Sunday paper, cartoon strip.
With a loud, gruffy voice that shakes the rafters (especially during its roars of forced laughter), Todd Wright is the soon-to-be (or not) jilted husband and the would-be owner (or not) of "The Pines." If he can stop serving himself and anyone who shows up in his parlor another whiskey, brandy, or Black Russian, he might actually buy the house from its current owner, a Yamaha-riding Leslie Bainbridge (Matt Brown), who enters in his leathers, boots and hoodie looking much like a home invader or local terrorist. But the left-behind letter from the now-missing Elizabeth interrupts the deal that Leslie so badly needs to make to save his debt-ridden, family affairs. It also leads to a flood of more drinking, the weeping of crocodile tears galore (the latter at one point by everyone occupying the house's three floors), and an increasing abundance of situations that appear to have no boundaries to how silly and slapstick they can become.
The final arrival to the house in the midst of the many exits and returns is Kitty, who looks with bowed-head and looks of dejection upon entering as if she is being led by a proudly ebullient Mark to the jail cell her most recent profession almost condemned her. Roneet Aliza Rahamim spends much of the play in silent, caged consternation due to a series of others' bumbles, with her Kitty spending much of her time on stage only visible to us the audience. However, when she does finally get to speak, she powerfully voices the playwright's message about the strength and determination of a young woman who is tired of just being an add-on to a man's own selfish plans, saying aloud the same frustrations that Elizabeth has as she vacillates in her own resolve whether to leave or to stay with Roland and his "dream house."
"Stairs" that are taped on the stage's surface to lead to the house's three floors are often the settings for many of the evening's over-the-top hilarity. In the Pear's intimate setting, the audience surrounds on three sides the rather dumpy rooms and furnishings of this so-called mansion (all designed with apparent tongue in cheek by Kevin Davies). The "steps" border the set and are within inches of the front-row audience on two of the three sides. The cast finds scores of ways to go up and down these in-reality-level stairs, with there of course being more than one mass of rolling bodies and with everyone hitting time and again the one step that loudly squeaksusually when trying to be otherwise sneaky and quiet.
That squeak is only a miniscule part of David Hobbs' award-worthy sound design. An ancient and pounding plumbing system, wall-shaking thunderstorms, and well-chosen 1970s songs that will bring chuckles later due to the play's events (like The Police's "Sending Out an SOS") are only a few of the many touches of his exquisitely timed scheme of sound effects. Meghan Souther's lighting also is well deserved of kudos, as the light shifts in intensity and flavor when characters travel from one floor to the next while, from our viewpoint, never changing where they actually are. Trish Files' costumes lead to their own chuckles, ranging from Leslie's layers of motoring leather to Elizabeth's choice of gowns, making poor Tristam into a night of ghostly lovemaking that he is sure will lead to his death at dawn (details to be fully understood upon viewing the scene).
The issue that I personally have of any extended farce is that at some point, the ridiculous usually becomes less and less funny to me, and my eyes begin to wander to my watch to see how much longer the shenanigans will continue. While there is much to love and appreciate in the Pear's excellently produced and executed Taking Steps, it does feel like energy loses steam in act two and there creeps in a sense of "will this ever end?." When at one point Tristam and Mark parade a sleeping Roland around the house singing him nursery rhyme after nursery rhyme to try and keep him awake (again, details of why upon viewing), I for one felt the strong urge to bolt. But of course I did not, and I did find yet more reasons once again to laugh aloud in subsequent scenes.
While in many of his eighty plays Alan Ayckbourn includes farcical elements and unusual physical settings, Taking Steps may be his only true farce beginning-to-end, enhanced by the title's play on words. Here is a house where stairs from one floor to the next lead only to where one's journey begins and where the steps to leave a relationship are not taken without hilariously tripped-up sidesteps. Director Troy Johnson, the cast, and the production team clearly are having a blast Taking Steps for our amusement, and for the most part in the somewhat long outing at Pear Theatre, they are quite successful.
Taking Steps runs through February 9, 2020, at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.