How the Other Half Loves by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Michael Marotta.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...being more incoherent than usual..."
Harry Vaughn, Kathleen Carey, Jenna Doolittle, Brian Allard, Amanda MaCallum, John Philip Cromie; photo provided
I remember Alan Ayckbournís first hit play as being funny. Of course that was 1971 when just about everything was funny. I remember laughing a lot, though, at Phil Silvers and Sandy Dennis, Richard Mulligan, Bernice Massi and Tom Aldredge and in this new production at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, I only laughed a little bit. Almost nothing was funny and it wasn't the people involved, I'm sure, who made this so.
Perhaps it stems from the amazing breadth of local farces: "The Ladies Man" at Shakespeare & Company with so many doors and windows and other exits, "Beyond Therapy" with its constantly changing face of humanity and the magical turntable, and now "How the Other Half Loves, with its two doors and two archways, its interlinking single set representing two apartments. The elements are there in the Ayckbourn play but the writing isnít as clean and humorous as it might be, the plot is too contrived and the people are too unpleasant to be as funny as they might be.
Two of the characters have had an affair, a one-night fling, and another character suspects the truth. A fourth has no clue, but has a sense of something changed in the general atmosphere. Two others, innocents in it all, become caught up in the plot and add the elements of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. A long first act sets this all up and then, in the second act the laughs start. At one hour and twenty minutes into a two hour show it is a bit late for the humor to enter the play.
In the long tradition of this theater the opening show is usually a farce, more often than not a British sex comedy. Purposefully this play has been chosen. It falls short of expectation even under the masterful hand of director Michael Marotta who moves his company with perfection through the dual purpose furniture and in spite of a wonderful, talented cast who never miss a moment or slip an accent. In fact, the result of imposing such wonderful people on such a strange set and odd play is that the show becomes more a melodrama with laughs than a laugh-riot with tensions.
As the Fosters, Fiona and Frank, we have Kathleen Carey and John Philip Cromie. Cromie excels at the distracted, corporate idiot whose lack of insight causes many of the problems the characters have to deal with in the course of the five days of the playís duration. Carey plays the coy wife who can confuse her husband with a perfectly placed phrase and she plays this to perfection. She never emphasizes what she does but merely does it with ease and leaves chaos in her wake. Both actors are perfectly cast and play with crisp perfection.
As the Phillips, Theresa and Bob, we have Amanda McCallum and Brian Allard. She is sharp as a tack and McCallum makes her points with a barbed attack. He is clever and slick and Allard is almost too slippery as he maneuvers his way around his wife, and the other two women in the play.
Then we have the Featherstones, Mary and William. This couple are the phobias waiting to attack the brain trust. She cannot speak in company without great effort and when she tries to overcome her tribulations she merely causes more confusion and more misunderstandings. He is a man not given to impulsive behavior who loses it, simply said. This couple are the comedy, pure and simple. Mary is played superbly by Jenna Doolittle and William is easily her match in the hands of actor Harry Vaughn.
Marotta, as noted, moves his company between the apartments brilliantly. In the second scene of the first act he also moves the Featherstones between two dinner parties set on consecutive nights and we never lose track of where they are or what they are suffering at the hands of their hosts. If there was ever a farcical setup - without a single slamming door - it is this one that Ayckbourn uses to challenge his directors and actors. This company, under Marottaís tight and decisive direction, makes the most of this. Oddly, it just isnít as funny as one would expect.
As usual in these affairs the team of Abe and Allen Phelps (set design and lighting design respectively) provides perfect settings for the goings on. Michelle Blanchard has provided excellent 1960s costumes. Technically it is all in place for fun and laughter. As one character says late in the second act "Apologize....itís easier that way." I repeat the lesson. This show somehow doesnít deliver on its promise. I think it is the playwright who needs to apologize - or to just keep writing the much better plays that followed this one. Which he did.
As for my memory of the comedy I anticipated seeing this time around, I apologize to myself. Itís a good lesson for a critic to not anticipate having today what he already consumed yesterday.
How the Other Half Loves plays at the Theater Barn on Route 20 in New Lebanon, New York through June 22. Tickets are $20-$22 and can be purchased through the box office. Call 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.