With bows of folly, Alan Ayckbourn set his three-act comedy “Absurd Person Singular” (his twelfth play of seventy-seven and counting) on three successive Christmas Eves. First produced in London in 1972, it had its Broadway debut two seasons later, and ran for two years. This current production by Nora Theatre (at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge) adroitly shows why it was, and remains to this day, one of his most popular plays. The increasingly farcical trio of acts follows three couples as they host their respective holiday parties (the final one impromptu), and the subterfuges behind them, providing a great deal of madcap fun, alongside some underlying serious issues. Anyone intent on discerning the deep significance of the title, however, may cease and desist now, as Ayckbourn himself admitted it has nothing to do with the play; rather, it was a clever title he’d come up with years before which he put aside until he needed it. His longest running play both in London and on Broadway, it takes place in an unnamed town in England in three distinctly different kitchens. Its theme, again per Ayckbourn himself, may be summed up as “cursed are the meek”.
Act One, “Last Christmas”, takes place in the home of Sidney Hopcroft (David Berger-Jones), a social climbing tradesman, and his submissive wife Jane (Samantha Evans), a housewife who prefers cleaning her kitchen to anything else. Sidney, a wheeler-dealer, hopes to convince his guests (three couples, one of which we mercifully never see) to invest in his business. That infamous couple we don’t ever see on stage are the Potters, Dick and Lottie, who at all costs must be avoided by all three of the other couples, each seeking refuge in the kitchen. Geoffrey and Eva Jackson (Bill Mootos and Liz Hayes), and Ronald and Marion Brewster-Wright (Steve Barkhimer and Stephanie Clayman) are the other two couples. Though Jane ultimately gets locked out in the rain, Sidney, very unfeeling for her, considers the party a success.
Act Two, “This Christmas” takes place a year later, in the kitchen of Geoffrey, an adulterous architect whose buildings have a history of collapsing, and his severely depressed wife Eva, who has a serious tendency to attempt suicide in front of company. With their marriage on the rocks due to his infidelity, nobody realizes Eva’s despair, and in fact they misinterpret her suicide attempts, thus ending up cleaning her oven, fixing the sink, or attempting to fix a light. All end up huddled in the kitchen hiding from their dog George (who is also mercifully never seen, but still manages to dominate the rest of the household) and, again, the Potters.
Act Three, “Next Christmas” takes place another year later, this time in the upscale kitchen of Ronald, a banker unable to count to ten, and Marion, an alcoholic who locks herself away in her bedroom. This time around all try to hide from Sidney and Jane who arrive unannounced, having had their fortunes rise. But since Geoffrey and Ronald both need Sidney and Jane now, they invite them in, and Sidney ends up having all dance (quite literally) to his tune.
Under Daniel Gidron’s superbly timed direction, the performances are all just demented enough to be hilarious. From Berger-Jones’ bluster to Hayes’ mimed and crazed Eva, they’re a hoot. Hayes’ performance in the second act is especially hysterical (in both senses of the term), leading to a tableau of well-intentioned guests that has to be seen to be believed, the funniest visual comedy in years. Mention must also be made of the Set Design by Brynna Bloomfield, each deliriously different kitchen a masterpiece of subtle detail, with transformations that are fun to watch during intermission. The Lighting Design by Scott Pinkney and Costume Design by Leslie Held are also sufficiently varied and appropriate to each couple’s level of upward mobility. Ayckbourn’s world is a dog eat dog one (not limited to George). He satirizes the concept that materialism is what matters most, given what flawed individuals he sees most of us are; his bet is that the odds favor those with the least scruples and most ruthless ambition. It‘s all a matter of priorities in each of their lives, and many bad things that happen in life result from well-intentioned actions. Heady stuff for a comedy, but that’s more the subtext as we watch each of these couples unravel in their own ways. And, in the end, what could be more refreshing than Christmas in July?