How the Other Half Loves
As any Alan Ayckbourn fan knows, his quirky, inventive strategies are irresistible. This noted British playwright constantly finds new ways to turn theater on its head, to reinvent stage usage. Watching an Ayckbourn play is like working out an advanced crossword puzzle or Sudoku game. The theatergoer must make the effort to unravel the snarl, and, in short order, gets caught up in the action. Thus Ayckbourn’s enormous appeal.
This time around, the Westport Playhouse offers an early Ayckbourn comedy (”How the Other Half Loves” 1969), under the astute direction of John Tillinger. And the gimmick, this time around, is that two parallel universes occupy the stage at the same time. It is one stage set—a serviceable middle-class English living room—which is simultaneously home to two distinct families, each playing out familiar marital issues (boredom, infidelity, gender roles, miscommunication).
This Ayckbourn conceit calls for considerable skill, and director Tillinger gets his cast of six off and on stage at a breakneck pace. In that sense, the play reflects the elements of farce at its best. It is all plot and fast action, with little time for in-depth characterization. Fiona and Frank are the older couple, Terry and Bob the younger pair, and Mary and William are guests to each household. The men work in the same company, under Frank’s direction. Complications, lies, and misunderstandings arise from the fact that Fiona and Bob have just shared a one-nighter and must cover up their infidelities.
Ayckbourn’s charm lies in the reality of these marriages, with believable dialogue and a sense of immediacy. Any one can stumble. Any one can lie. Any one can be bored. Any one can fall out of love. Puck’s “what fools these mortals be” is certainly applicable.
Yet it is not comedy in the ha-ha sense (though many in the audience could be heard laughing constantly). But the show does reach a high point of hilarity when the guest couple attends a dinner party at both homes (simultaneously, of course). The joy of this and other Ayckbourn comedies lies in the delight one feels with his puzzle-posers—so well implemented in this production.
Tillinger is blessed with a highly-competent cast--Geneva Carr, Carson Elrod, Cecilia Hart, Darren Pettie, Karen Walsh, and Paxton Whitehead. If any can be singled out for praise, it must be Whitehead, who plays the dim-witted older husband Frank (shades of Edward Everett Horton of the old Astaire-Rogers films!). And Karen Walsh as the naïve young wife who has stumbled into a nest of hornets is especially appealing.
In all, this “How the Other Half Loves” is good summer fare, offered on a high level. The Playhouse, under its new leadership, is off to a good start.
this review also appears shortly after Aug. 3, 2009, in the Connecticut Post and on niytheaterscene.com.