|Malcolm Ingram, Patricia Hodges, Richard Hollis, Emma Kaye & Nael Nacer in|
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
At dead center stage for much of Alan Ayckbourn's comedy Bedroom Farce, there stands a rather haphazardly constructed dressing table teetering precariously on the verge of complete collapse. It's a fairly potent physical metaphor for the play itself, which depends on several precise theatrical elements: perfect settings, intricate lighting cues, and above all, split-second timing to hold up. Fortunately for the success of this production by Huntington Theatre Company, it has all of that and more. This work, strictly speaking and despite the title, isn't truly a farce (with its typical very broad humor). His nineteenth play out of about eighty or so, it debuted in 1975 in Scarborough, England, moving in 1977 to London, and finding a home in 1979 on Broadway. This, the first Ayckbourn work mounted by Huntington Theatre in its thirty-five seasons, is the tale of a highly strung couple over one Saturday evening in three bedrooms occupied by three other couples. Ayckbourn slyly references characters from his other plays (e.g. Absurd Person Singular , where “Dick” and “Lottie” are never seen), but his emphasis is on a small circle of folks and how their lives interact on that fateful night.
Those three bedrooms belong to: the somewhat stodgily conservative Ernest (Malcolm Ingram) and Delia (Patricia Hodges) who have an anniversary dinner planned but are concerned about their son Trevor (Karl Miller) and his wife Susannah (Katie Paxton); Jan (Mahira Kakkar) and her husband Nick (Nael Nacer), who's incapacitated and left in bed while she attends a housewarming party; and Malcolm (Richard Hollis) and Kate (Emma Kaye), who are giving the party. At this party, Trevor arrives alone, while Susannah comes later, but in time to see old flames Trevor and Jan in a kiss. Jan goes home to discover Nick has fallen out of bed, followed by Trevor who confesses to Nick about the kiss. Meanwhile Malcolm and Kate discuss their relationship while he assembles that infamous table. Susannah, having discovered Trevor has slept at Jan's, flees to Ernest and Delia to tell all. Trevor has also been to see Malcolm and Katy and ended up accidentally destroying the table. All seems to end well, but much of their respective traumas remain essentially unresolved.
And that's just about all one can say about this work without destroying its comic plot points, which depend on the playwright's expertise with set-ups and surprises. There are also quite a few visual gags and here and there a dollop of slapstick, but the underlying theme of marital discord makes for a more involving theatrical immersion. Much of this production is virtually indescribable, such as the monumentally funny depiction of a bed-ridden Nacer, who shows a knack for comic brilliance hitherto under-appreciated by those of us so familiar with his countless serious roles in our area. To hear him whine “Why me?” is an unexpected pleasure, but then all of the cast are impeccably directed by Maria Aitken (of 39 Steps fame), crucially matched by the creative team, seldom as fine and on target as this production boasts. The Costume Design by Robert Morgan perfectly captures the various personalities of all eight players in a period notorious for its outre fashion sense, and the seamless Lighting Design by Matthew Richards provides an almost cinematic cascading flow, with an assist from the Original Music and Sound Design by John Gromada. But it's the Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge that proves most essential to the antics at hand; the three widely-differing bedrooms reflect the lives of their inhabitants, from the old-fashioned meticulously faded glory of that of Ernest and Delia, to the work-in-progress chaos of that of Malcolm and Kate, to the upwardly mobile au courant pretentions of that of Nick and Jan (complete with a conspicuous Albers hanging on their wall). Huntington is deservedly renowned for its spectacular sets, and the work on display here by Dodge rivals the best of them, including his own prior work for the company for such productions as Present Laughter and The Miracle of Naples.
Ayckbourn once spoke of the “power of three” as the basic source of much good comedy, namely “do it once, they'll look up; do it twice, you'll have their attention; do it a third time and they're ready to laugh”. He viewed this play as having some farcical elements, but more of a “slow, quiet farce” as opposed to the “louder, faster, broader” method so often employed when mounting a true farce. What's missing in this work is the rapier wit he would bring to later plays which skewer the British class system. Bedroom Farce, generally regarded as his “sunniest play”, might disappoint some who are more familiar with his body of work written later in his prolific career, when he developed a more vitriolic style. When one is gifted with a wonderful cast and creative team such as this production offers, it's cause for rejoicing even in the midst of our current national sense of loss. And it's easy to see why the playwright was justly awarded a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award (in 2010) for his incredible output. Farce or not, and while not the playwright's best work, this is a quiet gem, but a gem nonetheless.