Taking Steps, b y Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Sam Buntrock. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Claire Brownell, rRchard Hollis, Matthew Greer, Luke Smith, Helen Cespedes; photo: Daniel Rader
" I'm just going to freshen this one."
Carson Elrod as Tristram; photo: Daniel Rader
British farces always include sex; five doors are never enough to qualify the show as a farce. There must be sex. It must be awkward and it must be funny and the outcome of the sex must be as funny as the constant movement of the cast through the five doorways. In "Taking Steps," written in 1979 by Alan Ayckbourn, there is sex, sexual frustration and sexual satisfaction, sexual implication and sexual multiplication - the who slept with whom of the play - as well as onstage costume changes and the usual confusion of identities. The photos of the production on the main stage at Barrington Stage Company by Daniel Rader seemed to paint a picture of something less than farce, something closer to rape and disappointment, but in the theater itself farce holds the stage with a brittle, peculiar picture frame encompassing the play. Oh! By the way! I enjoyed this play very much even though I found the ending a bit of a rattler (think snake; think mind-boggling).
Ayckbourn reportedly wrote this play to be performed in the round, not in a proscenium setting. The play is placed in an old British midland house, reportedly haunted, with rooms on all three floors seen simultaneously. He has apparently never been satisfied with a proscenium, end of the building, production. I wish, I wish, I wish he could see this one. Director Sam Buntrock has manipulated people through space as though each space was unique and apart from all others, though they bunch together here, place one upon the other. It is a brilliant technique and, luckily, he has the cast that can handle what could have been a muddle but which, instead, turns out to be delightful.
It is rare that a secondary character turns out to be the leading role, but in this play, in this production, that is exactly the case. Tristram, a British Solicitor's associate, played by Carson Elrod, is just such a character. The writing gives him a certain edge, but the playing makes it certain that this man is the one we root for, concentrate on and come to love. He is a bumbler. He is perpetually tongue-tied. He is Harold Lloyd, Arnold Stang, Billy Crystal. He has a plot function that shifts into high comic mode when his function is thwarted by the circumstances of the play. Elrod, who last season at Williamstown brilliantly played a robot (he was nominated for a Berkshire Theatre Award for that role), is the perfect person for this legal role. Tristram clearly is incapable of doing his job and his overnight stay both heightens the humor and injects the sexual tension into the works. Elrod's voice and face and body language are exquisitely funny. His manipulation of props is filled with humor. Everytime he moves, or holds still for that matter, there is a laugh lurking somewhere. In a comedy of characters his is the key. He is the perfect actor for the role and the part of Tristram fits him to a tee. It is as though Ayckbourn saw this actor coming along (he may not even have been born in 1979) and thought he had better write the perfect role for him.
Richard Hollis; photo: Daniel Rader
As Tristram's client and nearly mortal enemy, Richard Hollis plays the industrialist Roland with every bit of skill available to him. This character is your proto-typical British alcoholic, a man who loves his wife, his life, his strife in equal measure. He's the guy in all the "Carry-On" film comedies who should be in charge, feels he's in charge and is never really in charge. His drunk scenes in this play are truly delicious. His vision of betrayal, visibly seen in his fluid face, is perfectly right for the role and the style of the play. He shows us Roland's love for his wife, his disdain for her brother, and his worshipful regard for his corrupt landlord and general contractor. He is the absolute Britisher, the man on the street in the very fine suit who shouldn't be wearing it but rather should be decked out in perfectly awful clothes. Roland has too much money, too little taste (all his bedrooms are done in shades of brown), and too little time for his lovely wife who, for some reason, loves him even though she needs to leave him. Hollis gets all of this right and brings a full and accurate portrait of the type to this stage.
Elizabeth, his wife, is lovely, a professional dancer who misses the work as she suffers the role of rich man's wife. Claire Brownell plays her with that elegant touch of contempt without which the upper-class British wife is incomplete. A beauty, graceful, though disgracefully un-balletic, Brownell's Elizabeth brings the most direct touch of sex into the play. Her effect on Elrod's Tristram shows us a delightful twist at the end of Act One. She has a voice that could cut glass but never grates. She has an edginess that helps to define the play and her final moments in the play are among the most frustrating I have ever suffered. I don't know if this is due to Ayckbourn or Buntrock but after two hours and fifteen minutes of funny theater I was left frustrated and more than a bit annoyed.
Richard Hollis, Helen Cespedes; photo: Daniel Rader
Helen Cespedes spends nearly half the play locked in a cupboard. Honestly, it is a funny business with lots of laughter at its bits and the aftermath involving sexual innuendo, and Elrod again is most enjoyable. Cespedes' Kitty is a misfit in this houseful of misfits. She is a ranter whose banter is less than quirky, more than cryptic and unusually outsized for Ayckbourn. The actress has the constant challenge of making us like Kitty. She succeeds, but just barely. It is good work in a trap role, a woman trapped in box by a bed in an attic.
Luke Smith plays her boy-friend Mark. I suppose someone must be in charge of exposition and Mark is the choice in this play. He has the sober role, the hero part, the intended lead (lost to Elrod) and the "get the girl" ratio. What happens to Mark is a surprise but not a shocker. It seems right. Smith plays him with the right amount of acid, the right amount of sugar. It's a good non-memorable portrayal.
Richard Hollis, Matthew Greer, Claire Brownell; photo: Daniel Rader
It falls to Matthew Greer to bring the outside alive in this production. Leslie Bainbridge is a biker, a Yamaha-Man, who comes to sell his house to Roland. A little greed, a bit of drink, and morning sunrise engage him in the most sexual hilarity of the play. Greer is so genuine in his role that the humor in the writing instantly engages him. His Leslie is twice the man in a wrestling match that Elizabeth is, but she has the moves and he gets the bird. One of the funniest, roughest and rawest sequences, partially choreographed by Ryan Winkles, is their engagement at dawn and it is worth the price of admission. Greer does very well in the least realistic part in this play.
The quirkiest set design of the season, anywhere so far, is this one by Jason Sherwood. It's complications, including it imagistic staircase, are as odd and eccentric as the play itself.
The British costumes by Jennifer Caprio capture the period and the people perfectly. David Weiner's lighting design is wonderful, storm-ridden and atmospheric. Joel Abbott provides the fine sound design work that aids in bringing touches of realism into the play.
Buntrock clearly has a touch for this type of play. Hopefully he will do more of them, and do them here where we can see them. Rarely does he fall for the easy, sweet way out of a situation in this play, but instead complicates things more with his physical manipulation of his actors. It is so well done that though I don't think this is Ayckbourn's best comedy, it would be intriguing to see it again in a week or so, just to see how it is playing. It would be worth doing.
Taking Steps plays on the Boyd-Quinson Main Stage at Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA through August 5. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line at barringtostageco.org.