BWW Reviews: SCR Revives Brit Comedy ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR
British playwright Alan Ayckbourn's amusing 1972 comedy ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR—which celebrates its 40th Anniversary this year—is currently eliciting chuckles through October 7 at South Coat Repertory in Costa Mesa. Though very much a product of its era, the three-act play directed by SCR co-founding Artistic Director David Emmes still succeeds in mining genuine laughs thanks to its mixed bag of sharp one-liners, humorous (if clichéd) visual gags, and a stupendously gifted cast.
Taking place in three different kitchens over three consecutive Christmas eves, the play traces the awkwardly forced interactions between three married couples, all of varying stages of financial and relational contentment. In view first is the kitsch-y, ultra-clean kitchen of middle-class couple Sidney (JD Cullum) and Jane (Kathleen Early), where we find both feverishly getting ready for a Christmas party they're throwing. Jane—possibly plagued with OCD tendencies—meticulously polishes the breakfast table with determined strokes, while her tightly-wound husband scurries about, dripping with worry. It's clear his aim is to impress their important, much more upwardly-mobile guests.
Those guests—at least the ones the audience gets to actually meet—include the slightly older, well-to-do banker Ronald (Robert Curtis Brown) and his wife Marion (Colette Kilroy), and the slightly younger hipsters Geoffrey (Alan Smyth), an up-and-coming architect, and his wife Eva (Tessa Auberjonois), a manic-depressive with a penchant for popping pills as a coping mechanism. As one might suspect, having all these flawed people with such strong personalities in the same room, surely, makes for a recipe of comedy.
Determined to secure a small business loan from Ronald by convincing the lot that he and his wife are themselves just inches away from similar success, Sidney feigns happiness and normalcy to his guests in the living room, even as plans and preparations are going awry in the kitchen like a runaway locomotive... to the delight of the audience. And much like any, square old-fashioned multi-camera TV sitcom that dotted channels during the 70's and 80's—which this play mirrors vividly—things have a way of not working out as one hopes.
As the homeowners and their guests go in and out of the kitchen (a place of retreat for all in attendance, apparently) we slowly learn a little bit more about each character. Sidney is a squirrelly go-getter who will stop at nothing to keep up appearances—including locking out his rain-soaked wife to avoid a little embarrassment—in hopes of gaining favor with the people that can get him what he wants. His hysterical wife, Jane, is so enslaved in the trappings of her "duties" as Sidney's spouse that she's all but lost her own self in the process (but, oh well, she does have a nifty new washing machine that's envy of her peers).
Their so-called guests aren't pillars of humanity either. Moneyed Ronald is a bit of a stuffy, emotionally blank bore while his wife Marion drunkenly slurs fake, back-handed compliments to hide some deep resentments. And along with a skyrocketing career and a high-profile project in the works, Geoffrey is revealed to be an unapologetic womanizer, a fact that's not quite a secret to her self-medicating wife Eva, whom we later learn in the second act is, literally, at the end of her rope.
Granted, these are not downright bad people, but they're so wrapped up in the artifice of measurable material success (whether they have it or not) that they've allowed personal relationships to suffer. Seems like heavy-handed stuff for a comedy, but Ayckbourn's amusing wordplay paired with Emmes' solid direction allows funny moments to rise up as a by-product of all this awkward—and, yes, absurd—behavior. There's this sort of giddy pleasure in observing other people's foibles that have always been a good source of comedy, even trickling down to the watchability of this current crop of pratfall-plagued sitcoms, scandal-plagued soap dramas, and horrid people with their own "reality" TV shows.
The beauty of the first—and best—act is not so much in its TV sitcom-like leanings but in the actions not seen: when characters step out of the kitchen and into a bustling party presumably in the next room. At times, it's almost just as exciting to anticipate who enters and exits at any given time, and what amusing statements they're about to declare. The second act—which takes place in Eva and Geoffrey's topsy-turvy kitchen the following Christmas—amps up the physical comedy, gamely juxtaposing the melancholy of Eva's repeated—and continually thwarted—attempt at suicide with the farce of the communal misunderstanding that she needed everyone's "help" in the kitchen.
Finally, the post-intermission third act—by far less comedic, but certainly more unsettling and awkward of all the acts—takes us to Ronald and Marion's swanky (but frigid) kitchen another year later. This time, in this Christmas eve, roles—and fortunes—seem to have reversed for everyone. While not as comedic physically as the other two acts, the hilarity ensues from the stilted speeches and palpable tensions still being suppressed by all these couples.
Carefully-thought out, if slightly predictable at times (you know somehow that an aerosol bug spray and a bare electric wire will cause a few, uh, problems), ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR is a worthy, audience-tested comedy that, despite its age, is still entertaining—primarily because its machinations feel comfortably familiar. Nothing wrong with this, obviously, but it also makes for a not-so-fresh approach to a play that could have used a spiffed-up concept given the anniversary. Nonetheless, the current end product is mostly solid and, overall, pretty damn funny. (Like I said, that great first act will hook you right from the start).
Much of the praise has to be heaped on not only Sara Ryung Clement's magnificently-detailed sets but also the stellar thespians that have been assembled for this oh-so-Brit farce. Each expert actor allows for a fully decipherable character to emerge out of voice inflections, facial tics, and even subtle body language. Early, as Jane, is such a terrific presence in the entire play, even if she's just polishing away in the background. Kilroy's intriguing portrait of gruff dame Marion, meanwhile, feels like a throwback to the shoulder-padded ladies of the last century, ones that can hold their own against any damn man. Smyth's portrayal of smarmy cad Geoffrey and Brown's role as Ronald are a bit more subtle than the rest, but are both great reactive supports to the rest of The Cast.
But it is Cullum as the uppity Sidney and Auberjonois as the woe-is-me Eva, however, who rise above the production—as they seem to always do in SCR productions. Here, both give such amazing, full-bodied performances that require calculated physicality and emotional resonance that are a treat to watch, especially as their characters arcs begin to crest. Cullum particularly shines in bookend appearances in the first and third acts that show his transformational metamorphosis from shame to pride; while Auberjonois' riveting, almost entirely word-less second act performance is an awards-worthy bit of acting if ever I saw one.
With its funny, witty banter, hilarious physical comedy, and comfortable pacing, the whole play feels very much like watching a live taping of a classic sitcom. And it's exactly this kind of comfy-chair familiarity that makes SCR's revival of ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR truly worthy of at least one more viewing.
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Photos by Henry DiRocco/SCR. From top: Jane (Kathleen Early) comforts husband Sidney (JD Cullum); Eva (Tessa Auberjonois) tunes out Marion (Colette Kilroy).