“Bedroom farce” at Westport Country Playhouse

By Brooks Appelbaum

Alan Ayckbourn may be Britain’s King of Comedy (or, in this case, Knight of Comedy), having written over 70 plays; won countless awards; been, yes, knighted; and over the past 60 years had his works produced widely in his home country as well as in America. However, judging from the current production of his popular Bedroom Farce, directed by John Tillinger at Westport’s Country Playhouse, the time for this particular play, at least, has long passed.

Three bedrooms; four couples; and two solid hours of situation comedy wrapped lightly in existential despair. Yes, the first pair of numbers seems slightly off -- and therein lies the plot -- but the last number is tediously dead on. The set-up might have seemed clever in 1975, when the play was first written: the three contiguous bedrooms, dominated by enormous beds, open towards the audience so that we are privy to a view that is (or was) in real life often hidden. Yet nothing of genuine significance happens in any of these boudoirs (meaningful, or witty, or even painfully scathing anti-pillow talk? Not here. Sex? Forget about it!). So the play’s design becomes little more than a gimmick.

In bedroom Number One, an elderly but still spry couple, Delia and Ernest prepare to go out to dinner for their anniversary. What should be a joyous occasion is marred by two occurrences: Ernest becomes preoccupied with roof leakage and the potential for damp disaster. Meanwhile, Celia receives a phone call from her daughter-in-law, Susannah, who is in a dreadful state over the latest in a long string of marital troubles -- troubles the fond parents are suspiciously quick to blame on Susannah rather than on their son, Trevor.

In Bedroom Number Two, we find Malcolm and Kate: young, playful and happily preparing for a house-warming party. The catch here is, once again, Trevor and his wife. Both have been invited to the festivities, since, as Kate points out, the pair have been hosts to her and Malcolm several times and need to be repaid. However, as Malcolm points out, Trevor and Susannah are never in the same room without getting into a serious brawl and will certainly spoil the party.

Finally, in the third room, Nick (Matthew Greer) is immobilized in bed with an agonizingly twisted back, and his wife, Jan (Nicole Lowrance) is getting ready to attend Kate and Malcolm’s party. Jan, who was once Trevor’s girlfriend (are you still with me?), is clearly approaching the end of her patience with her husband-turned-patient, and she can’t wait to get out the door.

What suspense these intertwining stories generate is more than clear by now: when will we meet the trouble-making Trevor and Susannah, and how much trouble will they indeed make for each of the other three couples? I don’t advise seeing the play to find out, but in case you are determined, I won’t give the details away.

Though director John Tillinger has previously directed several Ayckbourn plays for Westport (Things We Do For Love, and How the Other Half Loves), his main contribution to this production lies in casting some terrific actors. Cecilia Hart and Paxton Whitehead exhibit perfect comic timing and also capture the pathos of an elderly couple who have long ago forgotten what it was like actually to listen to one another, let alone to share greater intimacy than the adventure of eating pilchards in bed. In contrast to this pair, Kate (the lovely Claire Karpen) and Malcolm (the winning Scott Drummond), keep us rooting for their buoyancy and affection, even after we sense that they, too, will be victims of Ayckbourn’s sour take on marriage. And Sarah Manton, as the sad Susannah, manages to hang on to our sympathy, despite all odds.

Carson Elrod, in the key role of trouble-making Trevor, at first seems to come from another play, time, and place altogether. While everyone else is dressed in contemporary garb, his hyper-hipster appearance (string tie, skin-tight black trousers, white shirt, and masses of black curls standing straight up on his head like a small, up-turned lampshade) brings to mind eclectic singer/songwriter Lyle Lovett, or David Byrne of Jonathan Demme’s film Stop Making Sense. Both figures were famous in the 1980’s, and thus bear no relation either to the play’s inception in 1975 or to the present day.

Too, Elrod’s antic tics, twitches, and eccentric modes of speech are, at first, grating, to say the least. However, as the play wears on (and on), he becomes the most interesting character and actor onstage. Farce and comedy both depend on speed and surprise, and only Elrod consistently supplies both.

As is usual for Westport Country Playhouse, the designers have done their work well. Each bedroom reflects the personalities in it, thanks to the eye of Marjorie Bradley Kellogg (Scenic Design). Laurie Churba (Costume Design) has similarly created costumes that communicate character, and John Demous (Lighting Design) and Scott Killian (Sound Design) give the stage an appropriately middle-class feel.

Nothing, however, can ultimately save the production from Ayckbourn’s script. Despite the excellent performances and Tillinger’s efforts, two hours of this sliver-thin story is one and a half hours too long.

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