Absurd Person Singular by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Jesse Berger.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I honestly don’t think I can sit through many more of his jokes."
Sidney Hopcraft is a contractor with a deeply felt need to advance in both business and in the social classes. He and his wife Jane host a Christmas eve reception in his home in suburban England for several other couples. Among them are Geoffrey and Eva Jackson and Ronald and Marion Brewster-Wright. Each of the three acts in this comedy, now on stage at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA, moves us forward one more year exactly to the next Christmas eve and in so doing reveals to us the success of Sidney’s efforts and the opposite reactions of his new-found friends.
Ayckbourn writes wonderfully funny lines and the situation he sets up, while artificial, is very humorous. He uses the traits found in the first appearance of each of the six participants to show us their true natures, then exploits them shamelessly within the framework of the play. Marion, for example, the wealthiest of the wives and the most sophisticated, is a drinker who becomes an alcoholic and whose imbibing ultimately turns her into an almost not funny harridan.
Jane Hopcraft is the most likeable of characters and also the one who is the least transformed over the three year time period. Her clothes are more expensive, but her nature is just about what it was when the play starts. She is played in this production by Julia Coffey who is extremely funny, both in her line delivery and her every movement. She delivers nicely on the premise established in the first few moments of the play.
As her husband we have Robert Petkoff who is funny, I imagine, no matter what. He and Coffey never waver in their portrayals, their accents thick and maintained, their relationship clearly affectionate if difficult, with Naval salutes and heel-clicks. He manages to grow more manipulative and even a bit dark toward the end of the play, but she is just the same as she was, seemingly untouched by their successes. Their kitchen is limited to only two doors; this set plays like classic farce with Petkoff, in particular, in and out of the doors in the midst of rapid-fire dialogue (All three acts are set in different kitchens with two entrances each - three if you count the window in Act Two). Petkoff has his timing down perfectly as to his entrances. A very funny, rhythmic portrayal.
Christopher Innvar is Geoffrey. He is funny in Act One and seemed to be very much inside his role. In Act Two, set in his kitchen, he lost his accent (an Innvar trait it seems) and so lost his believability in the role. His wife is played with an openness and an honesty and a flair for physical comedy by Finnerty Steeves. She turns the second act into the most hilarious possible mime show. Set on suicide, she works with what she can find until she has exhausted every opportunity. Her turn-around in Act Three was delicious and clearly she grows throughout the play from a petulant woman-child into a woman of grace, beauty and stability. Steeves takes these changes in hand and makes them palpable.
Graeme Malcolm plays Ronald with typical British charm and easy sophistication, like the best of the BBC. In his own set in Act Three he is revealed as a man who may be exactly what he seems to be or a man unlike any seen since the days of Charles Dickens. Malcolm, like the others makes the transitions work simply by being true to his character as Ayckbourn has written him.
The frosting on the comedy-cake is the Marion played by Henny Russell. From act to act she slips further away from her easy sophistication until she is revealed as an alcoholic hussy with a penchant for luring unsuspecting husbands. It is a comic masterpiece in her able hands.
The three kitchens created by set designer Jo Winiarski are all winners (or winniarskis). Each is the perfect setting for the women who occupy them. Sara Jean Tosetti’s costumes reek of the 1970s from the layered panties to the neck-scarves worn by both men and women. Peter West’s lighting is very evocative.
The term "laff-riot" was coined in the period in which this play was written and, for all I know, may have been created for the Ayckbourn plays as a clever advertising slogan. It does apply to this production of this particular Ayckbourn play. Even at its most fallible it is most comic and the laughter cannot be contained. You have to laff.
Robert Petkoff and Julia Coffey; photo: Kevin Sprague
Christopher Innvar and Finnerty Steeves; photo: Kevin Sprague
Henny Russell and Graeme Malcolm; photo: Kevin Sprague
Absurd Person Singular plays through August 29 at Barrington Stage Company’s 30 Union Street Theatre in Pittsfield, MA. For schedules and tickets contact the box office at 413-236-8888.