Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2008
Alan Ayckbourn is a very popular playwright. Oldcastle has an excellent track record of producing his works. Their 1997 production of his 1975 Bedroom Farce was the most successful production in the companyís 37 year history. Four of the original eight actors are back in this new production. Why arenít I laughing?
This is the second Ayckbourn comedy I have seen and not enjoyed this season. I would suspect that I was the problem, except my colleagues had similarly negative responses to the Theater Barnís June production of How The Other Half Loves (1969). In that case I made the erroneous decision that, since Ayckbourn was a wildly popular and widely produced playwright, the problem had to lie in the acting, direction, and/or production itself. But my colleague Peter Bergman was ready to say that the Emperor had no clothes on, and laid the blame for the failure of that production squarely at Ayckbournís feet. I think heís right.
It is well known that humor does not age or travel well. Jokes that were considered hilarious a century ago make modern audiences scratch their heads. The French just love Jerry Lewis while his native country finds him sophomoric and dull. It is possible that Ayckbourn does age or travel well, and yet I know I have sat in the Bennington Center for the Arts and laughed my head off at previous Oldcastle/Ayckbourn collaborations. Whatís wrong here?
Well, the set, designed by Kenneth Mooney, is decidedly lackluster, and there are a couple of flat performances, but they are in the minority and are counterbalanced by four truly satisfying comic turns by Richard Howe, Janis Young, Willy Jones, and Philip A. Lance. Jones and Daryl Kenny are both joyously returned to the Oldcastle stage after a few years absence. No, the problem is definitely in the script.
Actually, the first problem is in the title. This is not a farce, but since it calls itself one you expect it to live up to that billing. And it takes place exclusively in bedrooms, which are private places and therefore its difficult to find excuses for casual acquaintances to wander through them, unless, of course, everyone is sleeping with everyone else, which often happens in a farce, but this isnít a farce. In fact, I have never seen a show set in the bedrooms of three married couples that contained less physical intimacy than this.
The action takes place in three British bedrooms. Stage right we have the bedroom of Ernest (Jones) and Delia (Young), an older couple celebrating their wedding anniversary. Center stage is the bedroom of Malcolm (Howe) and Kate (Kenny), who are hosting a large cocktail party on the evening the action takes place. And stage left is the bedroom of Nick (Lance) and Jan (Katie Cunningham). Nick is laid up with a bad back so Jan is off to Malcolm and Kateís party without him, as is her old boyfriend Trevor (Kevin Dwyer), and his ditsy wife Susannah (Gillian Wiggin). Trevor and Susannah, who are having marital difficulties, are also the son and daughter-in-law of Ernest and Delia.
The premise is that Trevor and Susannah are a couple of neurotic ninnies who disrupt the bedroom bliss of the other three pairs with side-splitting results. But Ayckbourn has not really differentiated his characters enough, which is probably why Mooney had a hard time designing three distinct bedrooms for them. Trevor and Susannah are annoying all right, but not in the least bit sympathetic. Ernest and Delia are endearing, but why do they take their daughter-in-lawís side over their sonís (Trevor is apparently their only child) and why donít we see more of their personalities reflected in his? I didnít understand why Jan and Nick were married at all, and whether the obvious age difference between them was an accident of casting this production or something Ayckbourn intended. This situation was not helped by the deadly dull performance of Cunningham as Jan. A tall, attractive young woman, she managed to make Mooneyís skimpy costumes for her look tacky, not sexy.
Thanks to fine acting, I completely understood the marriages of Ernest and Delia and Malcolm and Kate. Here were people who truly were each otherís soulmates, who had little games they liked to play and memories they lived to relive. Eating sardines on toast in bed in your jim-jams sounds good to this old married lady, as does chasing your spouse through the house with a loaded can of shaving cream or hiding their shoes for a laugh. Life would be very dull indeed without such silliness, and where else can you feel safe enough to carry on like this but in your own bedroom? Which is why it is infuriating, not funny, when Trevor and Susannah keep boldly invading these sanctum sanctorums (sanctori?) with their whining and fighting.
I couldnít understand what Trevor and Susannah saw in each other either, and neither could his parents or any of their friends from what Ayckbourn wrote. While Wiggin gave an energetic performance, Dwyer was confoundingly unappealing, and neither of the actors seemed to be doing much more than dashing about declaiming supposedly funny lines, instead of inhabiting their characters.
They need to take a lesson from their colleagues. Howe and Kenny and Young and Jones made perfectly delightful long-married folk. Howe was really and truly hilarious in his final moments on stage in the throes of the muscular spasms of a middle-aged man who has just woken from a night spent sleeping on a brick floor under a table (donít ask why). Youngís Delia was a fully fleshed-out British lady of a certain age and social status. She also got to say Ayckbournís best line of the evening, which, while it is very funny, sort of sums up the dry, passionless aura each of these marriages exudes: ďIf sex ever rears its head, close your eyes fast before you see the rest of it.Ē
Jones was a fine, funny partner for Young, as Kenny was for Howe. It is good to see both of these performers back at Oldcastle, and especially good to hear that Kenny seems to have recovered from the facial Bellís Palsy that kept her off the stage for a while. Fingers crossed that that frustratingly mysterious disease continues to keep its distance from her for many years to come.
While Lance was saddled with the hopeless Cunningham as a mate, he had many scenes in the first act in which he was alone in bed, immobilized by pain which rendered his attempts to cope with even the simplest tasks, like retrieving his reading book from the foot of the bed, hilariously impossible.
Tim Foley has directed this show nicely, no doubt helping these actors find their characters and staging endless satisfying sight gags. I wonder what he thought of the script?
I saw the play on the gala opening night, which included a wine tasting and wine auction hosted by Santť Magazine, one of this productionís sponsors, along with The Four Chimneys Inn, so the house was full of folks who were full of good wine and who had come out especially to support Oldcastle and were eager to be entertained. They seemed to enjoy the performance very much and called the cast out for a second round of curtain calls. Maybe it is just me, or maybe Ayckbourn, the Emperor of British Comedy, really does have no clothes on.
Bedroom Farce produced by the Oldcastle Theatre Company, runs through August 10 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 and is suitable for the whole family. Call the Oldcastle box office at 802-447-0564 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008