Touchstone Theatre


Candlelight’s Forum Theatre

Charles Dickens knew what he was about when he set his best-known ghost story on Christmas Eve. If Christmas is the occasion for jovial generosity and reconciliation, it’s also the spookiest season, a cold, grim, reflective time when we’re haunted by memories of old failings and unresolved conflicts. The flip side of the merriment A Christmas Carol celebrates is the sad, scary soul-searching that overtakes Scrooge in the middle of the night: fear as much as anything else makes him become a better man.

Two British comedies now playing illustrate the ambivalent emotions stirred by the Christmas season. Alan Ayckbourn’s 1972 Absurd Person Singular, the darker of the two, is a brilliant satire, but unfortunately it receives less than its due at Touchstone Theatre; Ray Cooney’s quite recent It Runs in the Family at Candlelight’s Forum Theatre is a lesser work but a better production.

Being farces, both shows make extensive use of that time-tested device, panicky traffic in and out of several doors. As they do, we’re made keenly aware that the main purpose of doorways is not to let our friends in but to keep our enemies out, as the plays’ protagonists vainly try to establish secure zones for themselves against the encroachment of a dangerous chaos. Behind the seasonal jollity lurks a desperate fear: that the order symbolized by well-organized festivities is close to a breakdown that will toss everyone into an emotional and social abyss.

Absurd Person Singular is set at a trio of cocktail parties; Ayckbourn specifies the time as “last Christmas, this Christmas, and next Christmas”–or Christmas past, present, and future. Though Ayckbourn’s three sociable couples think they keep the holiday with presents and parties, their lives are in thrall to a miserly materialism every bit as soul destroying as Scrooge’s. While the men plot to make money at other men’s expense (occasionally turning their conversation from business to extramarital affairs), their neglected wives retreat into private sanctums of depression: Ronald Brewster-Wright is a snooty banker married to blowsy boozer Marion, and Geoffrey Jackson is a handsome architect and self-described “sexual Flying Dutchman” whose wife Eva is hooked on pills.

The third couple, housing developer Sidney Hopcroft and his browbeaten spouse Jane, have more utilitarian outlets for their tensions: he builds and repairs things around the house while she cleans. And cleans. And cleans. They’d be perfect husband-and-wife domestics, in fact–except their ruthlessness destines them to be the masters, not the servants, as year by year they take over the privileged positions once monopolized by the well-educated aristocracy represented by the Jacksons and the Brewster-Wrights.

When Jane runs in through her own front door disguised as a delivery boy in act one, it’s more than just manic fun: it’s a foreshadowing of the third act, when Jane and Sidney barge in through the Brewster-Wrights’ back door–the rear entrance people like the Brewster-Wrights have forced people like the Hopcrofts to use through history. Only this time the Hopcrofts are in charge, quite literally calling the tunes to which their former superiors must now dance.

Restricting the action to the kitchen, Ayckbourn paints a savagely satiric portrait of dysfunctional marriages as a symptom of a deteriorating society. The heart of the play is its second act–really a self-contained play–in which Eva tries to kill herself in the presence of her uncomprehending guests. While Geoff goes off in search of the doctor, strung-out Eva casts about for different ways to commit suicide: stabbing, hanging, electrocution, even sticking her head in the oven. Meanwhile the Hopcrofts pitch in to try to help with what they think are Eva’s efforts to tidy up: Jane pulls her pal out of the oven and starts scrubbing it down while Sidney tries to repair the lighting fixture that Eva’s been fiddling with. It’s the high point of a play that confidently shifts back and forth between lightly bitchy humor and disturbing darkness.

Unfortunately, director Ina Marlowe misses most of the script’s nuances while overplaying its broadly comic passages to the point of incoherence. Overlooking most of Ayckbourn’s class consciousness, she fails to differentiate between the social-climbing Hopcrofts and the decadent aristocrats they grovel to and then dominate. Nothing in the actors’ manners or their mediocre English accents indicates the necessary differences among the three couples, so the script plays as just a sad comedy of bad marriages. Nick Polus is too ineffectual to be convincing as the bluff bully Sidney, and Tonray Ho’s compulsive Jane lacks the necessary deep-seated dread. Melinda Moonahan has the best lines as Marion, but unfortunately she’s been coached to signal Marion’s insincerity with an endless supply of double takes that ruin the flow of her scenes, while Kendall Marlowe conveys none of Ronald’s chilling hardness of spirit. Farrel Wilson’s lurching slapstick as the self-destructive Eva–Olive Oyl on Quaaludes–kills the timing needed to make the suicide scene funny. Only Nathan Rankin as the cruel cocksman Geoff comes close to Ayckbourn’s grimly comic vision of a valueless society propped up by a festive facade.

Though Larry Hart’s sound design (including such effects as offstage party voices and the barking of a Baskervillian hound) seems to have been recorded on a cheap cassette, Patricia Hart’s costumes are nicely appropriate. Most impressive are Kevin Snow’s three kitchen settings–plain and prefab for the Hopcrofts, sprawling and woodsy for the Jacksons, austere and unlived-in for the Brewster-Wrights. Watching the tech crew change the stage during the two intermissions is a show in itself.

Where Ayckbourn mines comedy from the reality of modern life, in his farces Ray Cooney relies on tried-and-true stereotypes dating back to commedia dell’arte and Roman comedy. Though not as viscerally funny as Out of Order, the Forum’s previous Cooney production, It Runs in the Family creates passable entertainment out of a man trying to stave off disaster and only inviting it. On the day he’s to give a career-making speech, Dr. David Mortimore is visited by a nurse with whom he enjoyed a brief dalliance 18 years ago–or, more precisely, 18 years and 9 months. Now she’s returned with Mortimore’s illegitimate son, an antisocial, leather-jacketed punker intent on meeting his father. Desperate to avoid exposure of his adultery, Mortimore enlists his colleague, Dr. Hubert Bonney, to pose as the lad’s dad, invoking the nonexistent ethic of “doctor-doctor confidentiality” and setting in motion a series of escalating absurdities.

Filled with broad double entendres and bawdy situations, It Runs in the Family draws on the English tradition of the yuletide pantomime, or “panto”–an elaborate entertainment featuring extravagant costumes, music-hall burlesque, and the inevitable cross-dress disguises, as Mortimore and Bonney end up masquerading as nurses for interrogation by the gruff policeman who’s a fixture in such comedies.

William Pullinsi’s staging is an amusing, light diversion thanks largely to the sublimely daffy performance of Lawrence McCauley as Dr. Bonney: McCauley brings a lovely Stan Laurel quality to his portrait of a shy man suddenly thrust into a charade that demands every ounce of the exhibitionism he’s always stifled. Dale Benson offers a lip-pursing, finger-twitching caricature of nervousness as Dr. Mortimore; Jamie Baron interprets the bastard son as a spike-haired tough-guy sissy out of Joe Orton; and Bob Thompson nearly rolls away with the show as a wheelchair-bound curmudgeon armed with a seltzer spray bottle.