Court Theatre

Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval begins and ends with the same scene–sort of. It’s an amateur theater company performing the finale of John Gay’s 1728 ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, in which the highwayman Macheath is saved from the gallows by a last-minute royal reprieve, providing the play with its requisite happy ending. Rather than hanging for his many crimes, Macheath–robber, cutthroat, philanderer, and treacherous friend–escapes to the cheers of admirers, even though he has done most of them dirt.

Guy Jones, the hero of Ayckbourn’s comedy, plays Macheath in the small-town production. The first time around, Guy is enthusiastically applauded by his fellow actors when he takes his bow; but the moment the curtain falls, he is ceremoniously ostracized by his colleagues. But when the same scene is repeated some two hours later–seen by us this time from a new perspective–things are different: Guy is warmly embraced by his friends in his moment of triumph. Like the character of Macheath whom he has been enacting, he has received a pardon from the playwright who created him–a pardon every bit as false and ironic as the one John Gay granted Macheath.

Guy wasn’t going to be hung, of course–except perhaps in effigy, like his namesake Guy Fawkes, the 17th-century terrorist whose failure to blow up Parliament is celebrated in England with mock executions. Guy’s misdeeds aren’t serious crimes: a little adultery here, a little disingenuity here, a lot of passive aggression all around. But to Ayckbourn, Guy is every bit as immoral as Macheath–and every bit as much a reflection of the pervasive corruption of his society.

Having joined the provincial Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society to find a social outlet following the death of his young wife, the lonely Guy soon is pressured into a series of suburban sins by the small-town bourgeois who make up the theater troupe’s membership. Dafydd ap Llewellyn, the eccentric Welsh director who earns his living as a lawyer, encourages Guy’s friendship but he has ulterior motives: he wants to learn whether Guy’s employer, a multinational corporation, intends to purchase some land he could buy first. When Dafydd’s drab spouse Hannah–“my Swiss Army Wife,” he calls her–makes a pass at Guy, he submits with the sort of aimlessness that guarantees heartbreak for both Hannah and Dafydd. When Fay and Ian Hubbard, an attractive young couple, lure Guy for a bit of partner swapping, he misunderstands the true nature of their invitation; but, having innocently (and hilariously) invited an elderly lady friend to the Hubbards’ intimate dinner, Guy isn’t above slipping into Fay’s bed while leaving Ian, so to speak, hanging. Ian puts up with it because he, too, is interested in the land parcel and wants Guy to help him buy it.

Amid all this petty corruption, Guy remains the steadfast innocent–which may be the most corrupt reaction of all, Ayckbourn suggests, in its avoidance of responsibility. By the time the curtain rises on the group’s Beggar’s Opera, Guy’s acquiescent nature has cast him as a sort of Macheath offstage as well as on, surrounded by jealous lovers and betrayed male friends.

Ayckbourn derives a good deal of easy humor from the amateurish company, a motley assemblage of the types one often finds in a community theater: the butch female stage manager, the silly but sweet older couple who have no business on any stage except the next one out of town, the icy bitch who keeps a shrewd eye on everyone else’s business, the lunkheaded young rocker who’s totally out of place in musical theater (except that he has the best voice in the cast), and the tyrannical frustrated director who makes life miserable for everyone else. But this is no Noises Off, no light-headed farce about theatrical incompetents. The people in A Chorus of Disapproval are real, and so is their pain; and the moral insights about responsibility that Ayckbourn offers–reinforced by Court Theatre’s pairing of this play with The Beggar’s Opera in repertory–are serious.

These insights are emphasized over the fun in Richard Russell Ramos’s staging of the play, seen here in its midwest premiere. (Despite its success in London in 1985, with Michael Gambon of TV’s The Singing Detective as Dafydd, and later on film with a cast headed by Jeremy Irons and Anthony Hopkins, the play has never been seen on Broadway.) Ramos’s directorial theme, expressed in his direction of The Beggar’s Opera as well, is reality versus unreality; so Jeff Bauer’s set design utilizes the cold, bare Court Theatre stage as the action’s primary setting (which is indeed a theater), with a series of tacky elevated miniature sets for scenes that take place in people’s homes, a barroom, and a garden. Dafydd’s house is made to look even more like a child’s make-believe setting by the presence of a life-size rag “Daddy-doll,” which sits limply on the couch, a constant rebuke to Dafydd for his frequent absences from home, as well as a reference to the effigies that Britons hang on Guy Fawkes Day. For Dafydd and Guy–both caught up in their own irresponsible pretend universes, both ill-prepared for those universes’ inevitable collapses–all the world’s a stage. And they both remain self-justifying to the end.

Though much livelier than The Beggar’s Opera, Court’s A Chorus of Disapproval lacked comic crackle on opening night. But the energy should pick up as the large company’s sense of ensemble develops over the next two months. Certainly the show is propelled by strong and intelligent performances–particularly from handsome and engaging Tom Amandes as Guy (the sort of fellow Ian Carmichael or Peter Sellers might have played in one of those brilliant Boulting brothers film comedies from the early 1960s, like I’m All Right, Jack or Heavens Above!, which this play resembles); Nicholas Rudall, cast to ethnic type as the Welshman-out-of-water Dafydd; Deanna Dunagan as his self-martyring wife; and Denise du Maurier in an Agnes Moorehead turn as the caustically aristocratic Mrs. Huntley-Pike. These actors are standouts in a generally excellent cast whose consistency is all the more notable considering its size (16) and professional makeup (only half are Actors’ Equity professionals). If they pick up the pace a bit, the Court actors will give this knife of a play the sparkling shine it needs to match its edge.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Sutton.