‘Other Half’ Offers Delightful Deceptions

By Geary Danihy

Oh, what a humorous web we weave when first we practice to deceive!
            Of the many fortes of Alan Ayckbourn, the prolific British playwright, his ability to use a lie or deception (normally of a sexual nature) as the jumping off point for a journey into the country of controlled insanity is nowhere more manifest than in his delightful How the Other Half Loves, which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse.
            Engagingly…one might even say ingeniously…directed by John Tillinger, this two-act drawing room farce begins with a lie about an affair and soon spirals up into the heights of hilarious absurdity, an ascent made more enjoyable by Ayckbourn’s solution to the problem of how to show what is going on in two different households at the same time without the audience having to observe split-set action as if it is viewing a tennis match.
            Thus we have two living rooms in one, with the occupants blithely unaware of each other’s presence as they go about their daily lives and duplicities. Sharing this single set are the Fosters, Fiona (Cecilia Hart) and Frank (Paxton Whitehead), and the Phillips, Teresa (Geneva Carr) and Bob (Darren Pettie), who will on consecutive evenings (that occur at the same time) host the Featherstones, William (Carson Elrod) and Mary (Karen Walsh).
            If several of these actors’ names sound familiar, that is because Hart, Paxton, Carr and Elrod have appeared in previous productions of Ayckbourn plays at the Playhouse, all under the direction of Tillinger. That the actors are familiar with each other and have worked together before is a decided plus, for much of the humor generated is a matter of either physical or verbal timing, and this cast seems to have these skills down pat.
            This is especially evident in the aforementioned double dinner party scene in which Elrod and Walsh are sandwiched at the dining room table between Carr and Pettie and Hart and Whitehead, reacting beautifully to their multiple hosts. That the audience has no problem understanding this time-warped scene (different dinner parties being enacted at the same time) is a tribute to both the actors and Tillinger’s direction.
            Hart and Whitehead have played a married couple in all three of the Ayckbourn plays directed by Tillinger, so it is no wonder that the interaction between the two actors is nearly seamless, with Whitehead portraying a character who is the master of misapprehension against Hart’s frustrated matron who suffers her husband’s mental wanderings, misperceptions and selective hearing with resigned acceptance. Whitehead’s particular talent for portraying the bemused bumbler (a sort of Don Quixote of the drawing room) is showcased in this production and his attempts at clearing the clouds of confusion that sail through his mind on a regular basis are a joy to watch.
            Pettie and Carr do a very nice job as the young couple whose marriage is being tested by a husband’s philandering and a wife’s domestically-challenged housekeeping. They spark on a number of occasions, especially during the dinner party scene which ends with them wrestling on the floor in front of the table.
            As the Featherstones, the young couple innocently drawn into the web of lies created by Bob and Fiona to cover their recent tryst, Walsh and Elrod create characters whose union would test the skills of the most adept marriage counselor, for William believes he has “created” Mary and she buys into this. Elrod, dominating when he is dealing with his “wife” (he slaps her hand when she bites her nails) and oleaginous when dealing with his boss (Frank), gives the audience an emotional chameleon you love to hate, with Walsh playing off this with just enough “mousiness” to make her seem put-upon rather than pitiful.     
            The “situation” the play presents is of no great moment, but that does not matter because the pleasures to be had here are those of watching minor events unfold with a goodly amount of dramatic irony punctuated by numerous pieces of stage business involving an electric toothbrush, a spanner wrench, a screwdriver, coffee cups, a soup tureen and rippling pectoral muscles. The primary pleasure, however, is in having the opportunity to view a stellar cast do its stuff with style and flair under the guidance of a director who knows that farce is a delicate genre that calls for a deft touch rather than a heavy hand.
            How the Other Half Loves runs through Saturday, Aug. 15. For tickets or more information call 227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.
           This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News


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