It’s a shame that the renowned British playwright Alan Ayckbourn is not as frequently produced in this country as he is in his native England. After all, there are some 70+ plays to choose from and nearly all of them have opened to generally positive reviews. Of course, Ayckbourn has had the benefit of being able to open his plays at his own theater, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, which has enabled him to write about whatever he has wanted to, but some 40 of those 70 have successfully played London. Only a handful, 10 to be precise, have opened on Broadway, and probably another 10 or 12 have been produced by regional or college theaters in this country.
That seems to be the case for his 1997 work, “Things We Do for Love,” which seems to never have had a New York production, but is nonetheless entertaining and amusing audiences at the Westport Country Playhouse, where it opened Saturday night, August 24, and plays through September 7. For American audiences unfamiliar with Ayckbourn, “Things We Do for Love” is a perfect introduction to the method and style of the playwright. For while Ayckbourn’s works are considered comedies, and generally hilarious ones at that, they are also filled with bittersweet reminders of his characters’ limitations as human beings, as for example their failures to communicate cause insult or injury, as their dreams fail to match the reality of their situations or as they face the loneliness and sadness they have been running from for years.
The Ayckbourn plays that have found audiences in America all have this dichotomy in common, as uncontrolled laughter is caught up short by an understanding of the underlying seriousness, as found in such frequently revived works as “Absurd Person Singular,” “How the Other Half Loves,” and “The Norman Conquests.” Ayckbourn also frequently comments on the state of love and marriage, and in “Things We Do for Love,” he pierces through an engaged couple’s relationship as they move into a vacant flat owned by the woman’s friend and mentor from her private school. Although there are only four characters in this work, Ayckbourn’s genius is found in the way he sets up the situations and the conflicts so that by the second act, the actors find themselves running up and down stairs, racing back and forth between various apartments and even destroying some furniture.
“Things We Do for Love” is also a good introduction to Ayckbourn’s ability to play around with theatrical conventions. One of his plays has had two different couples occupying essentially the same space on stage, another required the use of two adjacent theaters so that two separate plays that use the same time frame, the same characters and actors, but two different stages could be presented simultaneousy. Yet another work—essentially three connected but separate comedies—take place over the same weekend in the same country house but in three different rooms, each one standing on its own, but containing the same characters and utilizing the same actors. Yet another play, “Bedroom Farce,” which the Westport Playhouse will be including as part of its 2015 season, has three different bedrooms for three different couples on stage at the same time.
For “Things We Do for Love,” Ayckbourn requires a three story set, but with deliberate limitations. While the main action takes place in a drawing room off the main landing, the audience can see the lower half of the apartment directly above and catches brief glimpses of the top half of the apartment below. Set designer James Noone has done an incredible of realizing this for the Westport stage by assuring that the important components of the upstairs apartment are easily viewed from all points throughout the theater and providing a suitable hint of the basement apartment for all members. A quick look at intermission by the way did find that Noone has provided a full, if appropriately Spartan, set for the basement apartment so people in the front row and perhaps in the balcony can see that there is really an apartment there, but seeing the details is not important for the full enjoyment of the play.
Another benefit for Westport audiences is the selection of director, in this case the veteran director John Tillinger, who has previously directed Ayckbourn with a keen understanding of the playwright’s intentions and to maximum audience enjoyment. Tillinger is particularly good at comedy, especially comedies with a slight absurdist bent, and his helming here is meticulous. He knows how to time an entrance or have a character deliver the oddest remark in a most natural way. He maintains a steady but realistic pace and keeps the humor character-based.
As is typical with Ayckbourn, the characters all come with a set of unusual quirks and prickly personalities, none more so than Barbara, as played to peevish perfection by a divine Geneva Carr. As the audience gets acquainted with Barbara, we see a tightly wound professional woman with essentially no life outside of her job, which makes some sense as she is hopelessly in love with her married boss, with whom she once had a brief flirtation and affair. Gradually, she reels off even more outspoken opinions, especially a powerful dislike for vegetarians that she explains away with rather dubious but exceedingly funny reasons. Carr quite vividly showcases all of her character’s flaws, so much so that there are various times that I’m sure other members of the audience wanted to join me in throttling her. But as is Ayckbourn’s wont, his portrait of Barbara will take on further dimensions that will even accommodate a modicum of sympathy by the end of the evening. Carr, to her credit, maneuvers smoothly through all of these changes, so much so that we are caught off guard by how much we have invested in Barbara’s story.
Matthew Greer turns in an equally shaded performance as Hamish, the fiancé of Barbara’s old school friend. He is tall, darkly handsome and exerts a very modern style of masculinity. That he maintains a marvelous and believable Scottish accent throughout the entire production adds to his appeal, despite his character’s behavior that would cause some to label him as a heel. Greer conveys an earnest, solicitous concern for his fiancée and her welfare, as well as an oblivious spontaneity that frequently gets him into trouble. Hamish and Barbara take an immediate and spirited dislike to each other, based on Hamish’s rather open and carefree attitude toward life and Barbara’s close-minded obsessive compulsiveness which helps to a burning inner rage.
Sarah Manton plays Nikki as the voice of reason and sentiment in the early going, giving Nikki a confidence that hides some surprising secrets which only slowly get revealed. Manton’s Nikki can be merry, chippy and optimistic, but as Manton reveals, it would not be a wise move to get on Nikki’s bad side. It is interesting that in Ayckbourn’s own unique way, Nikki starts out as a character with whom the audience can readily identify, but who will remarkably lose a great deal of our sympathy by the end of the evening, even though some may say she is most deserving of it.
The invaluable Michael Mastro plays Gilbert, the tenant in the downstairs apartment, a widower who severely misses his wife but had developed some unrequited feelings for Barbara as he unofficially serves as her handyman for building issues. Gilbert is a type of character who shows up frequently in Ayckbourn, the socially backward individual who nonetheless strives to fit in, despite an inability to adequately judge any situation and a propensity to make inappropriate comments and take equally inappropriate action. Mastro is simply masterful as Gilbert, capturing the man in all of his awkward glory, allowing us to revel in the humor of his situation while being simultaneously appalled by it as more and more of the secrets of his basement quarters get revealed.
I also enjoyed Laurie Churba Kohn’s impressive array of costumes, which convey a certain social level amongst London’s business classes. Carr especially wears Kohn’s outfits particularly well, although sadly for him, but rewardingly for the audience, Mastro does not. Paul Miller’s lighting design helps cue the audience to focus on the appropriate location on the three floors, often signaling action about to come, frequently to the audience’s delight. He allows Noone’s selection of tasteful furnishings in Barbara’s flat to take on a lovely resilience, particularly in early morning.
What also makes “Things We Do for Love” so exciting and entertaining is that Ayckbourn’s plotting is so unexpected. The twists and turns are ultimately believable, but there are many times that one wonders just what direction Ayckbourn is going to take with each character. Right to the very end, there are all these gentle moments of surprise, made even more interesting by Ayckbourn’s willingness to defy expectations and social convention, which make “Things We Do for Love” all that more enjoyable. You’ll be shocked, shamed, embarrassed and surprised by the behavior on stage, but you’ll laugh like crazy and go home amply rewarded.
For information and tickets, call the box office at 203.227.4177 or visit the website at www.westportplayhouse.org.