Strawdog Theatre Company

Alan Ayckbourn is one of the few playwrights around who can create hilarious comedies out of subjects like death, denial, nervous breakdown, adultery, and dysfunctional families. Because he’s often perceived as a mere comic writer and has been unfairly labeled the “British Neil Simon,” he isn’t always grouped with the intellectual giants of the modern British theater. But as his peers show signs of slowing down or abandon the theater for Hollywood paychecks, Ayckbourn remains as prolific and inventive as ever, slyly dissecting modern manners and morals in plays as witty and accurately observed as anything that has come out of Britain in the last 30 years. Though Pinter may have been the first to understand the dramatic power of the conversational pause, Ayckbourn was the first to make it funny.

Satirists have often used the tea party to poke fun at bourgeois conventions, from Alice’s outrage at the ridiculous practices of the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse, and the March Hare to Eliza Doolittle’s coarse behavior at the tea party held by Henry Higgins’s mother in Pygmalion. The light clinking of teacups, soft slurping of tea, and murmur of polite conversation form the perfect backdrop for all manner of madness and havoc.

Ayckbourn’s mad tea party in Absent Friends is meant to be a pleasant little get-together but turns into an absurd domestic tragedy as a wide-eyed optimist inadvertently exposes the misery of all the people present. Diana (Nancy Bishop), a polite woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, has invited a few old friends over to the house to comfort Colin (Peter Voinovich), an old pal whose fiancee has recently died. The guests are Marge (Gretchen Sonstroem), a daffy dreamer who spends her life caring for her invalid husband; Evelyn (Carrie Hegdahl), a gum-smacking unfit mother who is having an affair with Diana’s piggish husband, Paul (Richard Shavzin); and John (Steve Savage), Paul’s client and Evelyn’s husband, a jittery fellow who becomes noticeably shaken when anyone brings up the subject of death.

Everyone at the tea party believes they’re doing Colin a service by comforting him in his time of need, but as it turns out Colin is a tireless Pollyanna, the only one of the group who isn’t seriously in need of professional help. His polite, well-intentioned words expose the fears and insecurities of everyone around him. By telling his old friends how fortunate they are to have escaped a fate like his, he reveals how miserable they truly are. His honest, innocent remarks about the need to face one’s mortality and to appreciate the loves in one’s life drive death-denying John into a tizzy and force Paul to face his infidelity, which drives Diana over the brink of madness.

In the hands of a lesser playwright this might have been maudlin or preachy, but Ayckbourn molds little tragedies into brilliant dark comedy, and the play’s idiosyncratic characters are realistic comic inventions. It’s a tribute to Ayckbourn’s skill that some of the grimmest lines in the play get the biggest laughs. When John speaks jovially of the difficulties of maintaining one’s optimism in a bleak family situation, saying that “apart from me, we are the most miserable family you are ever likely to meet . . . and I’m working on me,” it is somehow impossibly funny. In fact Absent Friends is one of the funniest, most devastating plays I’ve seen in a long while.

Strawdog Theatre’s revival shows remarkable depth, adding layers of intelligence to what is already an intelligent script. There is much fast-paced overlapping dialogue and slapstick stage business, but the focused cast makes the chaotic appear natural, even commonplace. And director Charles Harper has done a great job of orchestrating the madness onstage. Timing is everything in comedy, and this production doesn’t miss a beat.

Early on the company does sacrifice some believability for broad characterizations, but once Colin arrives on the scene the actors never let the play get away from them. Voinovich as Colin offers a particularly masterful comic performance; he also seems to be the only one onstage who isn’t having problems with his accent. But if you don’t mind putting up with some imperfect dialect for the sake of excellent theater, you should have a great time at Absent Friends.