by David A. Rosenberg
Beds are for sleep and sex, not particularly for laughs. No fear: sleep, sex and laughs are in short supply in Westport Playhouse’s sodden production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Bedroom Farce.”
Ayckbourn has written brilliant plays like “Absurd Person Singular,” “The Norman Conquests” and “How the Other Half Loves” in his long and fruitful career (he’s on his 82nd work). “Bedroom Farce” (dating from 1975) is sometimes ranked with those accomplishments but, at least in its present incarnation, the whole shebang smells of mothballs.
The three bedrooms strewn across the stage are designed with notable specificity by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, following the author’s call for Victorian to sparse to trendy. Bed number one doubles as a place for snacks, pilchards to be exact; number two is a repository for party coats and the kitchen utensils that are hidden beneath the covers by newlyweds who delight in practical jokes; number three is a place of physical pain for a self-pitying man with a bad back.
Delia and Ernest, an older couple, occupy the first bedroom. Preparing to go out, she’s fussing with her makeup, while her dyspeptic husband complains about a leak in the roof. Exhorted to hurry or they’ll miss their anniversary dinner reservation, Delia replies, “They’ll hold the table for us. We’re regulars. We go there every year.”
Bedroom number two belongs to Kate and Malcolm, hosting a housewarming party to which they’ve invited Susannah and Trevor, a couple with serious, ongoing marital problems. Invited also are Jan and Nick, he of the bad back. Nick has begged off but Jan will go, partly, she says, to see Susannah, in reality to see Trevor, her ex-boyfriend.
As for the party, it is, of course, a bust, thanks to the bickering Trevor and Susannah whose disagreements seem endless, something that can also be said about the first act. There’s so much to explain, so much exposition, that interest wanes quickly although the elements are here for a rollicking comedy of misunderstandings, brought on, as is usual in Ayckbourn, by the everlasting battle of the sexes.
Fortunately, things liven up after intermission except, by this time, torpor has set in. In this second half, Susannah, having physically fought with Trevor and witnessed his kissing Jan, repairs to her in-laws, Delia and Ernest, Trevor’s parents.
Trevor, meanwhile, takes refuge with Jan and Nick, to the latter’s annoyance, while Malcolm spends the rest of the night trying to put together a piece of furniture as a surprise gift for Kate. His effort, needless to say, ends disastrously, upending intentions and causing knowing laughter. (Which one of us has not struggled with DIY purchases?)
Why do we laugh -- or not - anyway? According to Freud, laughter is a way of coping, a way of dealing with the unexpected pain of everyday life. Philosopher Henri Bergson tells us that upending normality strikes our funny bone. Nothing is funnier than watching someone slip on a banana peel, upending his body and making onlookers feel superior to this klutz.
As directed by John Tillinger, the actors don’t get much beyond surface behavior to explore life’s pains. Still, Cecilia Hart and Paxton Whitehead are droll as Delia and Ernest, while Carson Elrod is consistently eccentric, looking particularly cartoonish in an oversize coat. Claire Karpen (Kate), Nicole Lowrance (Jan) and Sarah Manton (Susannah) are the women; Scott Drummond (Malcom) and Matthew Greer (Nick) are the men.
As former National Theater director Peter Hall once said, “To play Ayckbourn’s characters properly you have to dig deep, be serious, and then get laughed at.” This production’s emphasis on reality doesn’t heighten the absurd, as farce demands. Normality can go only so far, then has to be ratcheted up. At Westport, idiosyncrasies are suppressed; most of the characters blend one into the other.
It’s all so polite, so reasonable. And Ayckbourn is anything but. In play after play, he reveals the rage in the machine, the disquiet beneath the surface. Little of that comes through and we’re left with a mild mannered comedy instead of an angry farce.