Absurd Person Singular by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by John Tillinger. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Bruce Ellman. Cast: Mireille Enos, Clea Lewis, Sam Robards, Alan Ruck, Deborah Rush, Paxton Whitehead. Special funding for this production is provided by the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation. Manhattan Theatre Club wishes to express its appreciation to Theatre Development Fund for its support of this production.
'Tis not yet the season to be jolly; those hoping for a good dose of Yuletide cheer will have to wait another couple of months. Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular, despite taking place on not two but three consecutive Christmases, doesn't offer many exciting packages for audiences to open.
The play, which originally opened on Broadway in 1974, is of the genre that Ayckbourn has many times proved himself a master of: comedy with a violent underbelly. In this production, director John Tillinger stresses the comedy in everything from his staging to his casting, never resisting the urge to go for each and every laugh that can be mined from the three troubled (and troubling) couples that constitute the play's characters.
But as trained and experienced a farceur as Ayckbourn is, and as funny as his writing can be when he's at his best, it's the substance beneath the laughs that makes him more akin to a modern-day Molière than just another sitcom writer for the stage. Over the course of three frantic acts, Absurd Person Singular touches upon addiction, the cutthroat business of business, and suicide. But when Tillinger and his company must shine light on these darker aspects of humanity, they're able to uncover nothing new.
That makes for barely worthwhile theatre, and a type of theatre that's not at all Ayckbourn. This combat between expectations (from the script and the audience) and what's actually delivered rages until the very end of the third act, and is evident from the first moments, when the curtain rises on a kitchen, and an average, earth-toned one at that. Ayckbourn doesn't want us to take traditional pleasure (or, rather, comfort) in knowing these characters by their homes' common areas; it's how they behave behind closed doors, their own or others', that truly defines them.
As presented here, the characters behave like caged, drugged-up hyenas, scratching ineffectually and laughing far too often. Jane (Clea Lewis) is a devoted homemaker who draws her nesting inspiration from snorting whatever nearby bottles she can find; her husband, Sidney (Alan Ruck), is an on-the-move designer who's willing to step on anyone or anything if it will help him make the right impression. They two are hosting a holiday party for the banker and his wife, Ronald and Marion (Paxton Whitehead and Deborah Rush), in hopes of obtaining the loan they need to start their business empire; their two somewhat-acquaintances, Geoffrey and Eva (Sam Robards and Mireille Enos), show up, too, setting off a chain of expectedly chaotic events that span the two years of the play.
Each new act takes us to another kitchen, showing us not only how the story unfolds from each of the play's three different perspectives, but also how each couple's facades impact their own lives and the lives of others. By the third act, there have been reversals of fortune, and in some cases even reversals of the reversals; whatever you think you can take seriously in one act won't necessarily mean much one year later. Time marches on, and it drags these six people inexorably along on its sadistic way.
Only Enos grasps the gravity of her task, and then only fleetingly: When the action shifts to Eva's for the second act, devastating news has rendered her depressed and mute, and her increasingly outlandish attempts to kill herself - while hardly uttering a word - allow the actress ample opportunities for interiorization and physical comedy. She doesn't squander them, and manages to bridge the gap between the subterranean shadings of Ayckbourn's writing and the surface-level humor her castmates and director tend to elicit from it.
By the third act, Enos has faded into the background that most of the other performers occupy throughout. Ruck would seem ideal casting for the stolid, upwardly mobile Sidney, but can't convey his drive to succeed at any cost. Lewis milks the ditzy, chemical-sniffing Jane for all she can, but never seems chained to the man who will both destroy her and help her ascend to heights she could never reach on her own. Robards is very noncommittal and nonspecific as Geoffrey - it's difficult to see why his approval would mean as much to Eva as it must for the story to make sense.
Rush and Whitehead are never remarkable, but are closer to the correct general vicinity: She's better at dispensing caustic one-liners than resolving the apparent contradictions of the too-social socialite Marion; his stuffy manner and penchant for understatement serve him well here, particularly when it comes Ronald's turn to electrify the second act, but unlock few of the inner secrets that should propel him through the show.
Momentum here, however, is a problem throughout, with things sputtering long before the final curtain; Tillinger's lurching pacing only occasionally hits the mark. More on target are Jane Greenwood's costumes, Brian MacDevitt's lighting, and Bruce Ellman's sound; John Lee Beatty's sets, as per his usual, are better still, and tell us more about the characters than the actors generally can. This revival achieves most of its fun - and all of its surprise - in the seconds before each act begins, when the house lights dim and you anxiously await the next luminous Beatty creation.
Ideally, of course, you'd be on the edge of your seat waiting for more hearty laughter and acrid insight into the nature of the people onstage. But Tillinger and his cast, in pushing too hard in the wrong direction, unwittingly prove what Ayckbourn argues against: A glimpse through the kitchen doors only gives you a superficial idea of what's going on, but the living room is probably the more exciting place to be.