nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 30, 2010
Alan Ayckbourn is quoted as saying, in a program note for T. Schreiber Studio's production of his play Joking Apart, "My goal is to write a completely serious play that makes people laugh all the time." I would argue that in Joking Apart he achieves the obverse: this is a play that has the look and feel of a comedy that makes us very sad indeed. And I mean that in the very best possible way: the thin line between what's funny and what's tragic has never been thinner than it is here.
The Clarkes are perfect; they're the couple that has everything. Richard is a successful businessman and his partner Anthea (for she is not his wife) is the ideal homemaker and mother. Their children squabble sometimes and misbehave sometimes, but they love their parents and their parents love them. Anthea's culinary skills are equaled only by Richard's, and what's more, they seem to have an endless supply of nifty kitchen/dining accoutrements, so that each treat they conjure is served on just the right cunning little serving piece. Anthea is a tireless worker for good causes, and both are devoted to putting their guests and friends at ease whenever possible. The play spans a period of a dozen years, but Richard and Anthea never seem to get any older (though the garden of their spacious house—which has its own tennis court—looks a little better each time we see it). As I said, they are perfect. Really.
Their friends—represented by three couples who visit them regularly over those 12 years—are not perfect. They are like you and me: average, or just below that, or just above; petty and self-involved and troubled in various ways. The next-door neighbors, Hugh and Louise Emerson, have a precocious child they cannot manage and a marriage that is dysfunctional in the best of times. He's a vicar whose inarticulateness makes for very poor sermons; she's an anxiety-ridden wife and mother who is upset anytime Hugh eats something at the Clarkes' because she knows she's a rotten cook. The Holmensons, Sven and Olive, are Richard's business partner and his wife. Sven, from Finland, is bombastic and self-important and dogmatic; Olive is a small-minded whiner who is perpetually jealous of Anthea's slim figure. Brian, who works for Richard and Sven, is the male half of the third couple; in each scene he has a different date, always a sullen young woman with whom he clearly has almost nothing in common—Brian, you see, is nursing a longtime unrequited love for Anthea.
The comedy is easy, given this cast of characters: just put these six imperfect people in a room together with Richard and Anthea and the humor flows as freely and naturally as sap from a maple. One of Brian's girlfriends sits in the garden drawing; watch Sven and Olive patronize her in their singular fashions and the laughs quickly follow. Or listen to poor Hugh try to make small talk with the first of Brian's girls, a young woman from Canada:
Of course you won't have Guy Fawkes' Day in Canada, will you? (pause) No. It's very beautiful, I understand. So I've read. Of course in the south, you have the great lakes and, of course, the Niagara Falls. Then you have the big wheat-growing districts. Alberta. Manitoba. Saskatchewan. And then further north, you have the North-West Territories, of course. And a whole mass of lakes. Not forgetting good old Baffin Island.
The tragedy in Joking Apart is what sneaks up on us, as we slowly understand that Hugh and Louise and Sven and Olive and Brian will always see themselves as missing something that Richard and Anthea don't even realize they have. It's more profound than jealousy—it's a deep and discomfiting awareness of fallibility and imperfectibility. Richard and Anthea unwittingly reflect their friends' flaws back at them like the most unsparing and unforgiving and best-lit mirror imaginable.
The Schreiber Studio production is exemplary, as we've come to expect from this fine company. Director Peter Jensen keeps the pace moving briskly and smartly and never over-emphasizes or overdoes anything; he lets the play's dimensionality blossom within its oh-so-ordinary trappings. Matt Brogan's garden set makes great use of the Schreiber space and morphs nicely from scene to scene. Costumes by Anne Wingate, lighting by Eric Cope (including some neat fireworks effects in the first scene), and sound by Andy Cohen all contribute mightily to the environment. Special kudos to dialect coach Page Clements, who has helped this apparently 100% non-British cast to speak Acykbourn's dialogue with ringing authenticity.
And the cast is excellent. Aleksandra Stattin grounds the play as Anthea, perpetually competent, warm, thoughtful, and somehow slightly ethereal, so that we can understand why most of the men in the play are in love with her and most of the women are jealous of her. As Richard, Michael Murray is smart, suave, and utterly likeable. Sebastian Montoya plays the constant Brian with a nice self-deprecating touch that makes him very sympathetic. As his girlfriends, Anisa Dema does a fine job making them all different and yet all the same. In the more obviously comic roles, Alison Blair and Michael J. Connolly (as the Emersons) and James Liebman and Stephanie Seward (as the Holmensons) all do crackerjack work, crafting believable human beings whose flaws make their behavior humorous. Human frailty is what's being mined in Joking Apart, and it's only after we let it settle into our consciousness for a while that we realize that what seemed so hilarious a moment ago is actually very sad.