Absurd Person Singular
nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
October 19, 2005
Of all the rooms in a suburban household, the kitchen is where dignity faces its utmost peril. Puerile minds are already second-guessing me, thinking it is the bathroom that humbles us all greatly. But the kitchen has a sly combination of three elements that gives it reach over all other rooms jockeying for highest humiliation potential: intimacy (lacking the grand airs of the parlor), ease of entry (anybody can walk in on said intimacy. Who locks their kitchen?), and lots and lots of bits and bobs that are sharp, breakable, easily lost, easily fouled, or all of the above. So it is only natural that long-established playwright Alan Ayckbourn, master conjurer of the funniest sort of humiliation on Earth—British humiliation—should set Absurd Person Singular, Manhattan Theatre Club’s latest offering, in kitchens. Three different kitchens each take a turn as the setting for one of three acts, and each belongs to one of three suburban couples hosting successive Christmas gatherings, in a light evening of shtick at the Biltmore Theatre.
Alan Ruck and Clea Lewis are the first actors out, presenting the youthful Sidney and Jane, and their immaculate kitchen of domestic might. Like a page out of a Martha Stewart catalogue, this room is the hidden nerve center of two social climbers who don’t seem to have a lot of Christmas-party-hosting under their belt yet. Do they have the right drinks? Did they remember to buy x? Yes, here’s x, but where’s y? Sidney is a soldier of cheer who’s not afraid to go to his secret weapon if things get rocky in the parlor—games. Squeaky-voiced Jane is a daft housewife who parrots her husband’s asinine contributions to party conversation, and would just as soon that the cleaning had never stopped. The charm of the hosts must conquer two arriving couples, each of whom could help Sidney advance his career as a suburban real estate developer. Most stylish at the party are Geoffrey the philandering architect and his pill-popping wife Eva, played by Sam Robards and Mireille Enos, while the most distinguished mantle is carried by the banker and his wife, Ronald and Marion, the creations of seasoned stage veterans Paxton Whitehead and Deborah Rush.
As each of these couples takes their turn hosting the Christmas gathering in the following successive years and acts, we see the status of the couples shift between husband and wife and in relation to the other two pairings. Geoffrey and Eva (plus the off-stage character of George, their enormous dog, who is a series of hilariously timed sound effects designed by Bruce Ellman) have far darker circumstances looming over their Act II hosting preparations—or lack thereof, rather. Geoffrey has decided to go live with his mistress and Eva has silently decided to kill herself—these problems dwell in the room before it dawns on Geoffrey that company is coming. Though Eva never speaks in the second act, Enos is at the core of the non-stop physical mayhem that makes this the most fun part of the evening. Ayckbourn, truly on his game here, gives each character an absurd and utterly captivating task: Eva—to kill herself, cycling through a variety of increasingly drastic methods, each of them thwarted unwittingly by the rest of the oblivious guests. Geoffrey: to run for the doctor to treat his suicidal wife. Jane, the queen of clean, scrubs Geoffrey’s and Eva’s oven, thinking that Eva was struggling to clean it while actually struggling to gas herself; Jane’s husband, Sidney, joins in that spirit by fixing the sink as does Ronald, who fixes the light bulb, and gets rewarded with electrocution. Ronald’s wife Marion—well, she drinks. Enos’s drugged flailings through her suicide attempts after her first method of pills fails would make Lucille Ball proud.
The third act is oddly somber in tone—we are now in Ronald and Marion’s castle-like abode, which is seemingly all the more medieval because the heat has been broken for weeks. The cold has driven Marion to permanently encamp herself in bed with as much booze as possible within reach, which suits Ronald marvelously as now the rest of the house is quiet. Eva is in attendance, more stable if sharper-tongued than last year, and now keeps her spirit up by upbraiding Gerald for his ongoing unemployment and refusal to beg Sidney, now at the peak of his success and joviality, for a job. Not until the abrupt ending does the play regain its previous buoyancy, ending with Sidney getting his great wish—organizing a party game that is as egalitarian as it is inane: it mortifies everyone in the room generously and equally.
It is an upbeat ending to a play that seems like a fine pastry-crust—not meant to sit heavily in the gut, yet requiring skilled chefs in the kitchen. The actors are all up to the challenge, creating characters that are gracefully exaggerated. The women, in particular, enjoy themselves. Clea Lewis has a sing-song, nervous little laugh that she brings out just sparingly enough to keep from smothering the bit. Deborah Rush, as the boozy Marion, blows around the stage like a suburban empress, delivering some of the choicest lines of the night. Regarding Jane’s washer with separate dials for Whites and Colors: “its apartheid!” Moving on the color of Jane’s curtains: “most insistent.”
The pace of the action, under John Tillenger’s direction, stymies from time to time. While a dollop here and there of personal struggle is not out of place in a comedy, brooding adds drag to a scene, and there is quite a bit of it at the top of Act III, especially. Ayckbourn has written each act almost as its own compact little play, and that structure does not allow for much dwelling on an evening-long arc for each couple. The given circumstances are quickly established in each kitchen, and the action begins and never looks back. Act III gets out of the gate a bit slowly as the actors take time to reflect inwardly on their characters’ struggles, so that the final curtain drops on the party game just when the pace has returned to its old robust self. Nevertheless, there are quite a few exquisitely comic situations in this play that skewer the tight British clutch on dignified normalcy. Few playwrights these days can spin stoicism into mayhem with the zaniness of Alan Ayckbourn—see this play to witness comic writing that transcends the lazy sitcom habits of many contemporary playwrights aiming for laughs.