Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
Writer Alan Ayckbourn has brought the theater of farce into the twenty-first century. In fact, the playwright, with some 70 pieces under his belt, has been termed by critic John Simon “the Einstein of farce.”
What is farce? The genre, which is as old as theater itself (certainly going back to classical Greece), uses a coarse, ribald humor as its base—with exaggerated characters, absurd situations, split-second timing and improbable plots. Its closest modern counterparts are American burlesque skits and Mack Sennett films.
But Ayckbourn has refined the technique, turning his middle-class English characters into recognizable types within the realm of reality. His audiences respond not with guffaws but with chuckles. No one trips over his feet or gets a pie in his face.
And now Westport Playhouse theatergoers have the opportunity to see what this master and this genre is all about. Currently at the Playhouse is the early Ayckbourn piece “Relatively Speaking.” While the play lacks the innovations and complexities of his later pieces, it clearly shows the playwright’s promise. And this production, under John Tillinger’s sure direction, offers an evening of solid entertainment.
In “Relatively Speaking,” the strongest element of farce is mistaken identity, with the plot focusing on marital infidelity (a subject Ayckbourn loves to probe). Two couples—one youthful, the other middle-aged—are completely confused about each others’ identities while busily hiding the facts of extra-marital affairs. To reveal the plot in greater detail is to give away the game, so we’ll say no more.
The opening scene is too repetitive, too lengthy, for the thin material which is offered. It appears to be a one-joke theme carried on interminably. But the play picks up as the story, with its multiple confusions, develops. Granted that at any point confusions could have been clarified if every one had resorted to plain language. But, in theater, suspension of disbelief is all-important, particularly in the make-believe world of farce.
The scenes take place in a London flat and at a sumptuous English country home, both appealing creations in the hands of set designer James Noone. Scene changes move smoothly under Tillinger’s direction, as does the give-and-take among the characters. All four actors—James Waterston, Geneva Carr, Paxton Whitehead, and Cecilia Hart--are top-notch, with accents which are, as the English say, “spot on.” Whitehead, in particular, is master of the slow freeze, the pregnant pause, the double take. The others follow that lead.
In all, an evening of fun that leaves one longing for productions of the better, later Ayckbourn plays.
-- Irene Backalenick
July 16, 2007