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Farce is a tricky thing. Some like it crisp and fleet. (Count me among them.) But by its nature, farce tempts actors and directors to go with big, broad gestures—giant pratfalls, huge misunderstandings, epic expressions of shock. If that’s the sort of thing that tickles your ribs, you’ll have a blast at Constellation Theatre’s Taking Steps, an attractively mounted and lustily performed production of an ingeniously intricate country-house comedy in which everything’s engineered to make for maximum confusion about who’s where and which discombobulated nitwit will accidentally off himself with the sleeping pills.
In the rambling three-story manse—a former brothel—that’s the setting for the show’s various shenanigans, there’s a blustery manufacturing tycoon (Matthew R. Wilson), the flighty ex-dancer wife (Tia Shearer) who’s planning to leave him, the fussbudget brother (Dylan Myers) she’s enlisted to help, the wayward fiancée (Megan Graves) who’s already left him once, only to be arrested for conduct unbecoming, and most hilariously a solicitor’s assistant (Matthew McGee) who’s come to help the industrialist close a real-estate deal, but who’s so anxiously wispy you keep expecting him to evaporate entirely. Add a drop-in or two from a landlord (Doug Wilder) whose finances have him eager to sell, a cherished rumor about the resident ghost, and copious quantities of celebratory scotch, and it’s only a matter of time before someone’s locked in a cupboard, someone’s Dear John letter is mistaken for a suicide note, and yet another someone is in bed with the wrong partner—right?
Alan Ayckbourn, one of the British theater’s more accomplished farceurs, dictates that the house’s three levels be laid out by the set designer on a single floor, the better to have actors constantly in a state of near-collision; this is less a slamming-door farce than a high-wire air-traffic act. In Allison Arkell Stockman’s staging, the actors take considerable pains to mime the never-ending stair-climbing—it is called Taking Steps, after all—which sounds like it ought to be funny but grows markedly less so as the two-hours-and-40-minutes evening stretches on.
Wilson, Shearer, and Wilder bring the bluster, turning in performances that will grate or ingratiate depending on your appetite for the broad and the eccentric. McGee and Graves are the secret sauce; he’s doing some of the oddest, most committed comedy work I’ve seen on a local stage this year, and when the play finally gives her a chance to speak, she morphs convincingly from a fluttery, indecisive ingénue to a young lady with a spine of her own. Ayckbourn leaves several of the story’s ends defiantly loose, but he suggests a summation for these two—and it’s as charmingly satisfying as any romantic-comedy capstone in the canon.