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When a playwright takes as much delight as Alan Ayckbourn does in setting himself convoluted farcical tasks, audiences are generally inclined to cut him a good deal of slack. More, as it happens, than Ayckbourn actually needs.
Throughout the ’70s, the gimmicks in his comedies were so ingenious that it scarcely mattered whether his characters coalesced or his plots held up. But they did. His Absurd Person Singular found class-conscious laughs in the kitchens of three combatively friendly couples on three successive Christmas Eves, in a plot that built to the most hilarious suicide attempt this side of Harold and Maude and concluded on a note of anquished desperation.
In Bedroom Farce, Ayckbourn so intertwined the arguments of a trio of comic couples that the walls dividing their marriages seemed to dissolve entirely. And in The Norman Conquests (about a seductive cad named Norman), he persuaded audiences to sit through three full-length plays to witness simultaneous events unfolding in the dining room, living room, and garden of the same house during the same weekendevents that led, impossibly, but altogether naturally, to three entirely different fates for the protagonist.
Ayckbourn became a sort of British Neil Simon, at one point having five of his comedies playing simultaneously on the West End, but there was always a certain darkness underpinning the gimmickry, and in the ’80s, it came to the fore. By the time he penned Woman in Mind, which just opened at Round HouseTheatre in a sharp, persuasive revival, it was clear he was no longer playing idly with dramatic form. Yes, there was frothy fun in the dilemma of a vicar’s wife who knocks herself out in a ridiculous gardening accident and awakens to a hallucination-enhanced dual reality. But this time there was more than mere method to the narrative madness: The author was creating an actively schizophrenic play about schizophrenia.
It is also, as Round House’s production makes evident, a vivid character study. Susan (Kathryn Kelley), who has just beaned herself by stepping on a garden rake as the lights come up, initially seems little more than a bored hausfrauprecisely the sort of character Ayckbourn’s early comedies tend to mockbut she quickly fleshes out. Susan finds her life smothering, and once we’ve been introduced to her dreary cultist of a
son (Christopher Crutchfield Walker), her patronizing pedant of a hubby (Rick Foucheux), and her scowling, carping, menu-maiming sister-in-law (Catherine Flye), it’s easy to see why.
But we don’t meet them until Ayckbourn has taken us on a tour of the buoyant dream world Susan would prefer to inhabit. Under the ministrations of a comically inept doctor (Bill Largess), the heroine awakens from her garden-rake mishap to confront a sweetly sympathetic daughter (Kosha Engler), a dashing, Gatsbyish husband (Christopher Lane), and a chirpily enthusiastic brother (Jerry Richardson), all of whom appear forever on the verge of rushing off to play tennis. They’re cartoonsinversions of Susan’s real familyso they’re not as revealing as they might be, but they provide a useful yardstick for measuring domestic shortcomings.
Sound schematic? Well, sure, which is why director Nick Olcott is smart to undercut the script’s structure by emphasizing its playful, quirky elements. An old hand at genre-leaping, having directed or played in everything from Shakespeare to Mamet, Olcott presents Ayckbourn’s upstairs/downstairs familial dilemma as a choice between entirely different dramatic forms. The upper-crusty folks in Susan’s imaginary family appear to hail from Noel Coward; the down-and-outers from her everyday life are more like refugees from a John Osborne melodrama. The latter tend to be more fun, especially Flye’s prune-faced, recipe-resistant sister-in-law, who briskly proffers all manner of stomach-turning delicacies (including, at one point, an Earl Grey omelet).
Kelley’s Susan, meanwhile, struggles gamely with both her real and imagined families, dodging and weaving increasingly frantically through a psychic mind-field that designer Tony Cisek pictures as a brace of receding arches and patterned flooring. There’s a dramatic arc to the way Susan’s initially reassuring fantasies become haunting and unnerving, and Kelley negotiates it so artfully that the play’s tricky structure finally recedes, and the evening comes to seem a character study of a woman who is every bit as substantial as anyone on our side of the footlights.
Ayckbourn has occasionally been accused of attending more to the crafting of punch lines than of characters, but in Susan, he created a full-bodied domestic heroine with a mind of her ownalbeit one that’s about to snap. CP