How the Other Half Loves
By David A. Rosenberg
It was playwright Alan Ayckbourn himself who said, “A comedy is just a tragedy interrupted.” So it is with most of this prolific writer’s 73 plays. So should it be with “How the Other Half Loves,” now enjoying a bright, amusing revival at Westport Country Playhouse that is, however, distressingly short on either interrupted tragedy or poignancy.
Ayckbourn is not Ray Cooney, author of silly farces like “Run for Your Wife.” Rather, in Ayckbourn, violence is always near the surface and suppressed hostilities break out at the least expected intervals.
As directed by John Tillinger, the Westport evening skips merrily along, with nary a thought in its head. Mapping out moves and dialogue with admirable precision, Tillinger and his first-rate cast build and build and build to various payoffs.
The setting is two flats, an elegant one belonging to Fiona and Frank Foster, an unprepossessing one inhabited by Teresa and Bob Phillips. Action is overlapping and simultaneous; that is, we see both couples in their separate homes at the same time, an ingenious device.
Bob not only works for Frank, he’s been having an affair with his wife. When both Teresa and Frank question why their spouses were out so late one evening, the fakery begins. To cover their tracks, Bob and Fiona come up with tall tales involving office colleague William Featherstone and his shy wife, Mary. Bob tells Teresa that he’s been comforting William because Mary has been unfaithful, while Fiona tells Frank that she’s been soothing Mary, who suspects William of having an affair. None of which is true, of course.
That setup leads to perhaps the wildest dinner parties in stage history. On a Thursday, the socially inept Featherstones are wined and dined by the patrician Fiona and Frank; the next night, they’re entertained (if that’s the word) by the boorish Teresa and Bob. Although the parties take place on different nights, Ayckbourn brilliantly fuses them into one swivel-chair sequence for a mad comment on class (avocado and veal vs. indescribable soup) that progresses from politeness to pandemonium.
As you may imagine, it takes impeccable timing just to avoid having actors bump into each other, much less the furniture. The cast of expert farceurs is headed by that impeccable veteran, Paxton Whitehead. Bumbling and fumbling like an unmoored Colonel Blimp, Whitehead harrumphs his way through terrible messes, somehow always making them worse. It’s a treasurable performance.
Others are no less adroit. Cecilia Hart’s ever-patient, ever-conniving Fiona, Geneva Carr’s near-hysterical Teresa, Darren Pettie’s egotistical Bob, Carson Elrod’s hair-trigger William and Karen Walsh’s mouse-turned-lion Mary are thoroughly baked into the soufflé. James Noone’s complex scenic design, Stephen Strawbridge’s severe lighting and Laurie Churba Kohn’s class-specific costumes evoke an era (the time is 1970) when taste was not uppermost in people’s lives.
His characters may not know which end is up, but Ayckbourn certainly does. And the evening has laughs aplenty. Still, as former National Theater director Peter Hall said, “To play Ayckbourn’s characters properly you have to dig deep, be serious, and then get laughed at.”
At Westport, the laughter is more giddy than desperate. Yet, this Westport production will no doubt give pleasure to audiences who may not miss the regret and rue that should lurk beneath the characters’ clown masks.
This review appeared in The Hour, Norwalk, Aug. 6, 2009