A good production reminds us of why a play is worth reviving, and director Chad Henry's version of Absurd Person (through Dec. 10 at Actor's Rep) makes the case that Ayckbourn mingles serious commentary with slapstick farce about as well as anybody in the business. While Henry sometimes allows farce (a kitchen accident) and moodiness (marital squabbles) to linger on, he leavens emotions enough that we realize how much we're enjoying ourselves even as we're realizing why we're usually so sad during the holidays.
Three Christmas Eves, three distinct kitchens, three dysfunctional couples. Everyone living in denial, unable to face their own imperfections -- sounds like a real hoot, doesn't it?
Kathie Doyle-Lipe sets the opening scene, singing "Good King Wenceslas" in a falsetto, color-coordinated, with cleaning bottles dangling from her festive red holiday apron. Doyle-Lipe finds real sadness and desperation in all her compulsive cleaning. But then she's agoraphobic, so her husband has to pick her up and heave her through the kitchen door and out into the living room. Like so much of Ayckbourn's comedy, that's both a little funny and a little sad.
As the first-act underling hosting his superiors at a Christmas party, Reed McColm makes clear that he lords it over his wife around the house because he's getting bossed around all day at work.
McColm and Doyle-Lipe's characters, the social-climbing Hopcrofts, are the only two of the six characters who don't at some point express contempt for themselves or the others. They may be inept, but in their own way, they do manage to extend the tradition of Christmas cheer.
For his part, McColm delivers a master class in comedic acting -- reacting to a condescending arm placed over his shoulder, laughing with an explosive ha-HA!, inserting an ineffectual wave when he's included into the men's confidence -- but only as an afterthought.
As the banker's wife, Therese Diekhans swirls on imperiously, her blonde hair in a repressed bun, her martini glass extended just so. She's rich, dripping with condescension, and usually busy getting drunker. Diekhans delivers a scathing attack on middle-class tastelessness that, even as we know it to be hypocritical, emerges just as smooth as all the false compliments she'd been strewing about earlier.
Ayckbourn's -- and director Henry's -- mastery is most evident in the high-traffic farce of the second act, when a bunch of blind do-gooders scurry about, trying to improve their surroundings while comically oblivious to the real human suffering right beneath their noses.
Humor, after all, involves being insensitive. Guy slips on a banana peel, it's hilarious; your feeble old grandma does the same, suddenly you're the picture of concern. But when a wife laughs drunkenly at the humiliation of her husband, Ayckbourn is showing us an emblem of our own insensitivity: It's funny, but it's also cruel -- and we're complicit in it. One fellow's affectionate enough to his wife, but also bosses her into cowering submission. We laugh, but a little uneasily. Some of our foibles sting.
This production features a lot of accomplished, confident actors. In a single, booming outburst at his drunk and complaining wife, Michael Weaver startles us into realizing the resentment his accomodating hubbie keeps pent up all the time.
Page Byers, in her finest performance at Actor's Rep so far, wordlessly conveys the despair of a woman intent on killing herself. She's black around the eyes, black under the eyes, convinced that her husband regards her as "just a smudge on his marriage license." Wordlessly, she makes her character's second-act suicide attempts funny and yet, in the interim, full of desperate sadness -- not an easy acting stunt to pull off. Byers is the picture of sadness and frustration.
John Oswald catches the cynicism and self-loathing of an architect desperate for a commission and the next cuddle with a woman other than his dowdy wife.
Some reviewers (of the current Broadway production) have deemed Absurd Person a dated play. But what's dated? The women seem not to work outside the home, though in fairness they're all incapacitated in various ways. There's some snickering over adultery that suggests pre-AIDS insouciance about sex. (It's an early-'70s play.) But what else? Certainly being unhappy during the holidays hasn't gone out of style.
The play could stand a little Americanizing, however -- there's nothing quintessentially British about it. Just rewrite a few lines, and it might drive home for audiences here both the comedy and the sadness.
Still, the final dance of these six absurd and singular persons, while festive and funny, also has more than a touch of the sadistic in it. We may dance during the holidays, Ayckbourn seems to suggest, but we're also quite conscious of who's playing the music. We may not like it, but we know whose tune we're dancing to. All we can do is survive by putting on a show of Christmas cheer.