Memory plays tricks, and memory lane gets more shadowy every year, but how did it ever get so dark that theater patrons might have trouble telling early Harold Pinter from early Alan Ayckbourn? The two Brit playwrights once seemed to hail from entirely different planets—Pinter plumbing the dark recesses of melodrama, Ayckbourn flitting airily through the upper reaches of theatrical artifice. No more. Today, directors and audiences alike tend to glom onto the smirk of Pinter and the ache in Ayckbourn.
The current mountings of The Birthday Party at Clark Street Playhouse and Absurd Person Singular at Round House Theater are cases in point. In program notes for the former, director Dorothy Neumann describes Pinter’s ominous birthday bash as if it were a giddy early draft of Pulp Fiction, and her staging carries this notion to its logical conclusion, elevating the play’s conversation to the preposterous heights of those Travolta/Jackson exchanges about Parisian Big Macs. Conversely, in notes for Ayckbourn’s bright Christmas comedy, director Nick Olcott insists that a “cold and unsentimental eye” has been cast on absurdities that are singularly Ibsenesque: men’s obliviousness to women’s needs and women’s misunderstandings of men’s motivations. Olcott’s slapsticky staging doesn’t address these concerns very emphatically, but it’s reassuring to know he had them in mind.
Absurd Person Singular is one of Ayckbourn’s trickier comedies—a chronicle in three acts of three couples, three kitchens, and three disastrous Christmas parties. The first finds a sleazy developer (Marty Lodge) playing host to the prominent architect and respected banker he hopes to involve in his latest real estate scam. Intent on making a good impression with their upper-crusty guests, the developer’s cleanliness-obsessed wife (Jane Beard) is still scrubbing her kitchen as the party gets under way, wearing fluffy pink slippers while her dressy shoes sit irretrievably near a fireplace that guests are already leaning on. When a request for tonic water sends her scurrying through a downpour to the corner store, and her husband unwittingly locks her out, leaving her tapping on the kitchen window like the Ghost of Christmas Drowned, Ayckbourn’s comic contrivances are all clicking neatly into place.
The second party takes place a year later in a kitchen owned by now-humbled architect Mitchell Patrick (whose buildings have recently been collapsing) and his pill-popping wife, played maniacally and almost silently by Kathryn Kelley. He has evidently been philandering, so she is furiously scribbling suicide notes (which keep getting appropriated by guests for other purposes) and trying to leap out windows, impale herself on butcher knives, or asphyxiate herself in an oven the developer’s wife is intent on cleaning. Death is the joke here—a marked escalation from the first act’s concern with mere embarrassment—and the cast’s expert comic timing keeps it funny.
Act 3 brings the hosts of the first two parties to the kitchen of the benefactors—an obtuse banker (Richard Pilcher) and his alcoholic wife (Catherine Flye)—they’d earlier been courting. This household is physically and emotionally chillier, as is the author’s concentration on class issues as he charts the rise of crassness, the collapse of privilege, and the pain of an increasingly squeezed middle class. The gathering is understandably more somber, though not quite somber enough at Round House, where director Olcott seems intent on wresting a few last laughs from the audience. He gooses the shenanigans up to the level of the second act’s farce, an approach that paid off in Season’s Greetings, Round House’s Ayckbourn offering last Christmas (in which Olcott was memorably hilarious as a performer), but that shortchanges Absurd Person Singular. There’s genuine sadness and social commentary at the heart of this play that’s only hinted at in production.
All the more surprising then that there should be visual jokes that aren’t being exploited. Dawn Robyn Petrlick’s settings are serviceable, but hardly rife with comic observations about occupational or class distinctions. It seems not to have occurred to anyone that an architect’s home might be amusingly overdesigned, or that a banker’s surroundings could be ludicrously luxe. The biggest disappointment comes early, when the developer’s crassness is reflected in mere brightness rather than in decorating grotesqueries. Rosemary Pardee’s costumes are better, neatly defining social status through fabric choices that change with the fortunes of the characters.
The play ends with a danced game of musical forfeits—apples tucked under chins, oranges pinioned between knees—that Ayckbourn intends as painfully awkward. Instead, it’s played at Round House as if the point were to send an audience grown quiet during the third act home on a comic high. As the crowd responded on opening night, chuckles growing to general laughter, it was hard not to feel let down by a production that seemed to mistrust the instincts of the author. He’d gone out on a limb, risking tears and disquiet at the tail end of a comedy…and they’d made his risk-taking seem safe by settling for laughs.
While Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of The Birthday Party isn’t getting nearly as many guffaws as Absurd Person Singular, it is inestimably funnier. Few playwrights have articulated life’s inherent absurdity with more understanding than Pinter, and Dorothy Neumann’s sprightly production makes clear that though the author’s first full-length play initially went unappreciated (its 1958 production barely stayed on the boards a week) he was already writing with the comic subtlety that inflects his later work.
Which is not to say some patrons won’t still be put off by the evening’s refusal to label or define the menace it so cleverly evokes. The Birthday Party chronicles nothing more than the arrival of two mysterious, vaguely threatening strangers at a seaside boarding house. They seem to know Stanley (Michael Comlish), the house’s only boarder, and he seems to know them, though who they are and what they’re up to is never quite stated. The one thing that gradually becomes evident is that they know how to throw a party that’ll curl Stanley’s toes.
This being Pinter, it’s up to the audience to provide subtext while the actors provide laughs and no small degree of ominousness. Hulking Brian Hemmingsen and slender Chris Henley make the dapper, thuggish strangers an absurdist Laurel and Hardy with a mean streak. Comlish’s dyspeptic, increasingly terrified boarder and Rena Cherry Brown’s screechily ditzy landlady are neatly matched foils, while Nanna Ingvarsson and Richard Mancini provide able comic support in smaller parts. Mick Murray’s set—a riot of grimy, peeling wallpaper patterns—is a decided asset, lending specificity to a dramatic landscape where all the nonphysical details are decidedly vague.
This production inaugurates WSC’s second theater space at Clark Street Playhouse, a former warehouse that is in the process of being rehabbed into a rough and ready, low-rent KenCen-South. The new, high-ceilinged, black-box auditorium, which can accommodate about 50 patrons in comfortable, steeply raked seating, is reached by walking through the main auditorium’s setting for A Streetcar Named Desire. The two plays can’t be performed simultaneously because several performers have roles in both, but it’s easy to imagine the place humming with activity—a tribute to the enlightened arts policies of Arlington County’s recreation department, which uses the back half of the building for storage of costumes, props, and other items. WSC hopes eventually to have a restaurant on the premises and to share its theater space with other companies; big dreams in today’s straitened economy. Still, those who doubt that progress can be made in an age of reduced arts funding should take a moment on entering to marvel at the remarkable, theatrically vibrant home WSC has managed to create on a practically nonexistent budget.