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Better Halves 

by Michael Bowen

The new box office and the new stage manager's booth aren't quite finished at the top of the Spartan Theater, and the programs needed to be reprinted at the last minute, but the inaugural show at the Actor's Rep still went on last Friday night.

Ostensibly about marital affairs, Sir Alan Ayckbourn's How the Other Half Loves is really about the power struggles within marriage -- its ego-induced misapprehensions, its deliberate deceptions.

This is very early Ayckbourn (from 1971), and not his best work. With its swingin' dialogue, its overtly sexist husbands and its never-heard-of-AIDS sexual libertinism, it feels dated. The first-act setup drags. Moreover, in a play premised on split locations and overlapped time frames (two blended living rooms featuring simultaneous dinner parties), Brandon Smith's set doesn't do nearly enough to differentiate the trendy Fosters from the messy Phillipses.

Still, this being Ayckbourn, we're also in for some stunningly funny curtain lines, plenty of laugh-out-loud lines, and an ending that's more than merely cutesy: This is a playwright who knows how to express the importance of forgiveness without indicating how utterly transformed these folks will all be after the curtain drops. Because they won't: They'll still play around, drink too much and fail miserably at coming to know themselves. Somehow they'll muddle through.

ARt's initial production does more than just muddle through. As the deceived spouses, real-life marrieds Phelps L'Hommedieu and Jane Fellows contribute delightful comedic acting. L'Hommedieu embodies the self-impressed do-gooder, anxious to mend other couples' marital problems when he can't see his own -- or even perform minor fix-it jobs around the house. Fellows excels at the slow burn of the woman scorned. And at the play's conclusion, not only do she and her fellow provide resolution through forgiveness, they also make clear how some folks get tricked into thoughts of infidelity without ever intending it.

As part of the third, odd-man-out couple, Caryn Hoaglund does about as well as can be expected in pulling off Mary Detweiler's transformation from mousy to assertive. Ayckbourn underwrites her role, apparently assuming that it's enough to show a woman becoming more self-confident, never mind the mechanisms of how she does it.

When it comes time for him to admit that perhaps he's been wrong, just this once, Damon Mentzer improvises some unscripted, hilarious, tongue-tied comedy that enlarges his nerdy character's dimensions.

As Bob, the Swinging '60s philanderer-husband who learns the least, Patrick Treadway is delicious in his sarcasm and up-front about his willingness to manipulate other people.

Everyone in this comedy is assumed to be playing around at one time or another, but Seattle's Page Byers plays the real adulteress with flair. She's acquisitive, phony, too charming by half -- but just when you'd like to splatter her pearly whites and helmet hair with a well-placed pie, she flops over a couch in astonishment or conveys genuine embarrassment at having been found out. Byers -- Martha Stewart-pleasant but caught with her hand in the cookie jar -- turns in the evening's most detailed performance.

With this show (through Sept. 12) and in its final play this season -- Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, in April -- Weaver's ARt has opted for the tried and true, and with reasonable success this first time around. The challenge arrives in doing its next three shows, each of them both new and new to Spokane. Dirty Blonde, an unconventional retelling of the life of Mae West, opens in three weeks. Having led off with a base hit, now ARt needs to move some runners into scoring position.

Publication date: 09/02/04

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