Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2000
I have not read ALL of Michael Frayn by a long shot, but I have read enough to know that he is not all "Noises Off". I have also read enough of his short "humorous" pieces to know that sometimes his humor goes straight past me. Whether it whizzes over my head, grazes my shoulder, or zips between my legs is debateable. Or maybe it is that British/American culture gap. Sometimes I just don't "get it".
Perhaps that is the reason I had never heard of his play "Alphabetical Order" until it was announced on the Oldcastle schedule this year, even though, like "Noises Off" it won the London Comedy Award the year it opened in the West End. Perhaps this show is just too British for us Yanks to fathom. In the case of the Oldcastle production I wonder whether it was the audience who couldn't fathom it, or perhaps the director and cast.
Set in the library of a provincial newspaper in the mid-1970's, I wanted "Alphabetical Order" to be an ensemble work-place comedy like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show". Frayn was a reporter for The Guardian, then became a columnist on that paper from 1959 to 1962 and for The Observer from 1962-1968, and so I wanted this to be a kind of "slice of life" of his own experience in the "never-a-dull-moment" world of journalism. And maybe it was that, but it was one of those slices that are marred by the authors closeness to the situation and characters. And yet, a whole season worth of London theatre critics and theatre goers cannot have given a Best Comedy Award on the strength of what they wanted this play to be. Somewhere something got lost in the translation. Oldcastle has assembled a perfectly adequate ensemble cast, and put them on a great set by that great set designer Kenneth Mooney. Director Joe Warik puts them through their paces in a manner that is only occasionally obvious - as when everyone scurries around deliberately looking busy or frenetic. But I really didn't care about and sometimes didn't even understand the characters. I never did understand why everyone said that Wally (Victor Barbella) was deaf - he didn't act deaf, his dialogue didn't lead me to believe he was deaf. I have a slight hearing loss and I know what a fool I make of myself from time to time. And what was supposed to be wrong with Arnold (Paul Donlon)? Everyone said he was drunk, but he was the one who struck me as deaf. There is a big difference between deaf and drunk.
I did enjoy and care about Deirdre Madigan's Lucy - perhaps because I lead that same kind of scattered existence. I never did understand whether I was supposed to love or hate Leslie (Valerie Clayman), the new Assistant Librarian whose compulsion for order drastically changes the library and the lives of her co-workers.
The only actor and character that I fully understood was Nora, the lonely widow, played by Bonnie Bishoff. But I still found the humor missing. Oldcastle usually does such a great job with comedy that I was looking forward to an evening when I could just relax and laugh. Instead I found myself like Leslie in the first act - sort of horrified and confused by the antics taking place before me. Didn't you get the joke? Sorry...
One thing I liked was having a working clock on the set. Granted, it wasn't showing the actual time, but it was accurately showing the passage of time, and that I found fascinating. Critics are probably the only people who have to go home and write down how long the show lasted, but I was interested to time how the show progressed. Twenty minutes to introduce all the characters, ten to set up some kind of crisis to be solved, fifteen more to bring Act I to a climax... Yes, I think all sets should be equipped with working clocks so that dramaturgs like me can keep track of the playwright's skills in hours, minutes and seconds, rather than by his or her writing ability.
"Alphabetical Order" produced by the Oldcastle Theatre Company, runs through July 8 at the Bennington Center for the Arts at the intersection of VT Rt. 9 and Gypsy Lane. The show runs two hours with one intermission. Call the Oldcastle box office at 802-447-0564 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2000