Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Comic Timing and Nuance Are Key in Ayckbourn’s World

Laughter Flows in Ayckbourn

Absurd Person Singular marks SCR’s ninth production of an Alan Ayckbourn play.  The first, A Chorus of Disapproval, was staged by Founding Artistic Director David Emmes in the 1989-90 season.  Emmes has gone on to direct five others, including this latest, making him SCR’s resident expert on the world of Alan Ayckbourn.

Joe Spano and Don Took in A Chorus of Disapproval.
Emmes has assembled a cast of SCR regulars—JD Cullum (Sydney), Kathleen Early (Jane), Robert Curtis Brown (Ronald), Colette Kilroy (Marion) and Tessa Auberjonois (Eva)—along with one newcomer, Alan Smyth, in the role of Geoffrey.  Emmes knows what’s needed to perform Ayckbourn properly:  during the casting process he looked for actors who would combine a sense of comic timing and nuance with a commitment to truthfulness and humanity in their performances.  Ayckbourn is himself a consummate director, and for 37 years was the artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough England, where he directed the first productions of most of his own plays; so he speaks from a wealth of experience when he says, “That is really the way you have to approach my plays. In general the more seriousness, the more truth you bring to bear on the characters the more they will bear fruit later.”  He adds, “In my own rehearsals I am somewhat of a joke in that I never allow us to dwell for a second on the subject of possible audience laughter. For, in truth, I have found that the more we disregard it, the more readily the laughter flows.”

In creating the physical world of the production, Emmes has worked with set designer Sara Ryung Clement to fashion three distinctly different kitchens that reflect the taste and social status of their owners.  A large turntable will facilitate the change of sets between acts.  (The first two kitchens occupy opposite sides of the turntable; the third replaces the first during the intermission between acts two and three.)

Costume renderings for Eva and Geoffrey by Nephelie Andonyadis.
The kitchen furnishings combine with Nephelie Andonyadis’s costumes to capture the look of the early 1970s, as Emmes has chosen to set the play during the era in which it was written.  Lighting designer Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz and sound designer Sam Lerner round out the design team.

For more information on Alan Ayckbourn and his plays, visit his official website.

Read more about Absurd Person Singular.

Absurd Person Singular finds humor in characters’ shortcomings

by John Glore

As we learned in grammar school, the term “third person singular” refers to verb conjugations for any subject who is neither you nor I—in other words, those other people.  Examples of third-person conjugations would include “she drinks” and “he philanders,” “he simpers” and “she snaps,” “he bullies” and “she flails.”  The third-person point of view is indispensable to reporters and tattle-tales—and without it, gossip would be impossible.

Of course reporters, tattle-tales and gossips have in common an abiding interest in the foibles of humankind.  Dramatist Alan Ayckbourn shares that interest and exploits it to hilarious and edifying effect in his plays (numbering 76 at the last count).  A consummate example is his early dark comedy, Absurd Person Singular (1972), celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and kicking off South Coast Repertory’s 2012-13 season on the Segerstrom Stage.

According to Ayckbourn, the title came to him before the play itself, on an elevator ride in 1971.  In fact he originally had a different play in mind for it, but when that idea didn’t pan out, he liked the title too much to throw it away.  Generic as it is, the title would arguably fit just about any of Ayckbourn’s plays; but it happens to fit this one particularly well, at least in spirit.  Like all of Ayckbourn’s work, Absurd Person Singular is built on a realistic foundation, and finds humor in the shortcomings of its characters and their inability to communicate effectively with one another.  But ultimately the play reaches an almost absurdist pitch at times—especially in the final moments of the third act, when four of its six characters are compelled literally to dance to the tune of a man they once dismissed as an ineffectual boor.

Alan Ayckbourn
From the beginning of his career, Ayckbourn has shown himself to be a master of dramatic construction, and has typically approached the task as though working out a three-dimensional puzzle.  Absurd Person Singular takes place on three successive Christmas Eves, in three different houses, in the midst of three holiday gatherings attended by three married couples.  But rather than set the three acts in sitting rooms—where the party-goers initially gather—Ayckbourn places the action in the kitchens of each home, “backstage, as it were.”  He explains, “Nowhere in the house says more about a person's habit and background, the nature of their day-to-day existence, than their kitchen.”

In the first act, Sidney and Jane prepare for the arrival of two couples they don’t know very well.  Sidney, a small-time businessman with grand ambitions, has chosen the guests strategically:  they may be able to help him build the bourgeois empire of his dreams, if he can only get on their good side.  The stakes are high, and he has no patience for Jane’s scatter-brained bustling, although his mistaking bug spray for air freshener contributes to the household confusion.  Once the guests arrive—architect Geoffrey and his wife, Eva; banker Ronald and his wife, Marion—one mishap follows another and matters quickly spiral into comedic chaos.  That doesn’t stop Sidney from declaring the party a success as the act comes to a close.

Act Two takes place in the kitchen of Geoffrey and Eva, who are so preoccupied with their own marital discord that they’ve forgotten they’re hosting a party due to begin at any moment.  Having learned of Geoffrey’s latest infidelity, Eva is at the end of her rope—but the arriving party guests, Sidney, Jane, Ronald and Marion, mistake Eva’s attempts to end it all for efforts to tidy up and make repairs in the kitchen, and soon everyone has joined in to help her get things back in ship-shape condition.  The second act of Absurd Person Singular shows Ayckbourn at the height of his ability to devise clockwork farce—built of miscommunication and physical comedy—that never forsakes the human dimension of his characters.

The third act strikes a much more muted tone.  We find ourselves in the kitchen of Ronald and Marion, in a home that has seen better days.  The heating has been on the blink for some time, and Marion is in the throes of a drinking binge—again—but Ronald remains clueless as to the reasons his life has fallen into such disarray.  Eva, fully recovered from last year’s suicidal despair, is on hand doing her best to help Ronald take care of his dipsomaniacal wife.  When Geoffrey arrives it becomes clear that the tables have turned in his marriage:  Eva is now in control, as he struggles to recover from a professional cataclysm involving a building he designed.  The four of them settle in for a quiet Christmas Eve, but their “silent night” is soon disrupted by the uninvited arrival of Sydney and Jane, now riding high after two years of good fortune.  They’re determined to turn this unplanned gathering into one more party, and the newly successful and confident Sydney knows just how to pump up the festivity.

Alan Smyth (Geoffrey), Kathleen Early (Jane), JD Cullum (Sidney) and Colette Kilroy (Marion).
In the end, and intermittently throughout, the amusing and unsettling interactions that constitute the three Christmas Eves of Ayckbourn’s play do acquire an absurd edge.  And the six characters who spend those evenings together are indeed singular in more than one sense:  distinctive and eccentric, yes—but also alone, each character isolated from the others by persistent breakdowns of understanding and sympathy.  Those breakdowns yield plenty of humor, but in the end they also suggest an idea about the human condition that operates as a constant force in the world of Alan Ayckbourn:  For all the social conventions that have arisen to smooth the edges of human relations—and for all the brilliant, supple communicative ability we have achieved through language—we remain to some degree inept in our attempts to understand one another.  Like it or not, from the perspective of other people any one of us can easily be reduced to the absurd person singular.

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