“Things We Do for Love” at Westport through September 7

By Tom Nissley

Alan Ayckbourn includes a lot of history when he writes a play, intended to bring the audience up to speed about the characters, where they’ve been, what’s happened now, and what will happen next. That’s to keep us from guessing. In “Things We Do…” there’s a stand-offish woman named Barbara (Geneva Carr) who owns a house with several apartments, including her owns. Her downstairs tenant, Gilbert (Michael Mastro), is helping her out by fixing a radiator in the upstairs apartment. Quickly we learn that she regrets the last tenant, who seems to have missed his target in the bathroom several times over, causing her to have to clean away at it where he sprayed up the wall. (”Why do men do that?!”) She’s not just stand-offish but she frowns on men in general. And she’s just about to meet an old friend from Boarding School named Nikki (Sarah Manton) who still carries a crush on Barbara and insists on hugging and sitting into her on the sofa as she reconstructs school days when Barbara was known as ‘Spike’ because she was so scary to the other girls.

Nikki also promptly reveals how she was beaten and kept in a closet by her last husband, wonders if she might just be a victim type (significant), and elicits from Barbara that she, Barbara, has almost never had any kind of sexual relationships after one with a handyman or coach at the girls’ school who bragged about his conquest.

All of this information seems like overload, but it’s great background material. Nikki and her fiancee Hamish (Matthew Greer) are going to rent the upstairs apartment while they are building a new home nearby. When Hamish arrives Nikki runs to him and clings to him while they recite a little ritual, “Bear, bear, bear,” says Nikki. “Love, love, love,” says Hamish. Nikki introduces Hamish to Barbara, and there is immediate tension, for the two dislike each other. So there’s the setup. Now we just have to watch the action play out.

A psychotherapist named Steve Karpman described go-nowhere transactions on a triangle with a victim position at the bottom and two at the top called persecutor and rescuer. Persons involved in the triangle switch positions easily. Let’s follow these four actors on the triangle. Barbara’s a victim because her last tenant, a persecutor, has made it hard for her to clean the apartment. Gilbert’s a rescuer, as he helps her. All he wants in return is a little affection, but he quickly becomes the victim when Barbara ignores him and abruptly sends him on downstairs carrying some clothing she didn’t have time (victim) to donate to a charity shop. He’ll take it for her (rescuer).

Nikki (victim) clings to Barbara and tells her horrible story of bad marriage. Barbara rescues and explains that she is in good position because she works hard and doesn’t let men invade her life. Except for her married boss who cannot keep a calendar (victim) without her (rescuer). Nikki catches on that Barbara’s never had a real sex life (victim) and rubs that in (persecutor), telling Barbara that Rocco (if that’s his name -- I couldn’t hear it clearly) bragged about having sex with ‘Spike’, and by bragging around made tough Barbara his victim years ago.

The triangle is already busy but when Hamish enters things speed up. Poor Nikki runs to him for her (rescuing) hugs. She persecutes Barbara by showing how easy it is to have affection from a strong man, and Barbara quickly persecutes Hamish by deriding him. There’s chatter about how good Barbara (rescuer) is to have kept them from being homeless (victim) while their house is being built. As they get up to their apartment Hamish -- stripping off his clothes to reveal a well-toned body -- is ready to turn their love into sexual splendor but Nikki (victim/persecutor) has cramps again and wonders if Barbara would let her use the downstairs bath for a soak in the tub. Hamish, aroused and frustrated, puts on a robe and requests it, Barbara (rescuer) says yes, Nikki comes down and disappears into Barbara’s bathroom. Barbara feels Hamish’ desire for sex and suddenly reverses her stand-offish-ness as they kiss and run upstairs for vibrant moments of passion. So Hamish rescues Barbara and she rescues Hamish and both have just left Nikki back into her familiar place as an unaware victim.

Act Two: Barbara declares (persecutor/victim) that she and Hamish was a one-time thing! Hamish declares that he’s in love with her. They do it again. Nikki almost catches them, but goes off to the house to meet Hamish (who is in reality in Barbara’s bedroom). Gilbert gets drunk and begs Barbara to love him as he loves her. He’s potentially a dangerous persecutor but is tamed by Hamish, who rescues him with good advice about cleaning up his behavior. Hamish and Barbara set a time to tell Nikki that they are in and she is out. In disbelief, Nikki runs upstairs in tears (victim) and then begins (persecutor) to cut Hamish’ clothing into shreds and break Barbara’s furniture. She leaves. Hamish and Barbara have a fight in which each of them gets badly hurt (persecutor/victims) which is interrupted when they hear Gilbert trying to get out of the downstairs apartment after falling from a ladder and breaking a leg while wearing Barbara’s dress.

So you see how they stay on the triangle, rescuing and persecuting and then doing it again. Karpman called his invention “the drama triangle,” and Ayckbourn uses it to advantage. If you’re comfortable with the process, you may enjoy the play, and of course, you may catch glimpses of how the triangle can be found happening at home. And following the process you’ll be able to laugh at some stuff that otherwise would really not be funny.

John Tillinger directed the play, beautifully, and all four actors are terrific, inhabiting their roles, giving physical cues as well as verbal ones to what they’re feeling. You’ll like them, and you will wonder a little how James Noone made such a handsome set accommodate three separate apartments. I was impressed by the casting requirements. Hamish had to be stunning without clothes. That worked. Barbara, too. And Nikki had to be slender but complaining that she was becoming fat. Sarah Manton practically disappears when she turns sideways, so she can’t be called plump, let alone fat. We will have to assume that Nikki is anorexic.

You can get information and tickets at WestportPlayhouse.org or by calling 203-227-4177

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on theatre

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