Review: Trinity Rep’s Absurd Person Singular
Friday, October 22, 2010
In other words, the long professional marriages of these actors who have worked together for decades, infuse these onstage marriages with an additional knowingness and attending weariness, and it makes what could be merely a taut, funny period piece into a real exercise in domestic claustrophobia. It's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, on poppers. And it makes what is traditionally a very funny trio of set pieces peopled by classic English archetypes, into a surprisingly dark look at men and women who know each other all too well.
Clear, class-savvy satire
The play itself, one of 74 written by the prolific playwright, is clear, straightforward class satire, inherent in the play's very architecture. Ayckbourn creates three acts: three Christmas Eves (1973, '74, and '75, to be exact) with three Christmas parties hosted, in turn, by three couples: the striving working-class Hopcrofts (Stephen Berenson and Angela Brazil), the middle-class Turners (Fred Sullivan, Jr.,
Kitchens, kitchens, kitchens
The set for each act is the hosting couple's kitchen, an easy metaphor for the back room of class settings (not to mention where the real stuff goes down at parties). A hilariously agonizing party in Act I hosted by the kinetically hapless Hopcrofts uses the kitchen as refuge for poor Jane (played with a high-strung inventiveness by Brazil, combining the comedic emotionality of Lucille Ball with the long-limbed zaniness of Olive Oil), who really would prefer a servant's spot in the chain... and who only regains her poise at the act's conclusion, when she can return to her knees and scrub her floor. But her husband, nailed into cloying annoyance by Berenson, drives the couple up the ladder with pure capitalistic zeal.
And up they come, as one year later, the formerly icy Turners are coming unglued. In their kitchen, a disgusted (and chemically unbalanced) Phyllis Kay puts on a near-catatonic mime show for most of the act as first she dumbly endures a brio monologue of amorality from her cheating husband, played with just enough swagger by Fred Sullivan, Jr., and then turns to attempting to end (over and over, and over again), her own life. With deadpan intent (and still no uttered words), Kay is like Harpo Marx stuck in his own game of Clue... where's she going to get it done? At the window of the Turners' four-storey-high flat? With the knife, wedged farcically into a kitchen drawer so she can take a run at it? Or with the rope, which she deftly fashions into a hangman's noose while the other two couples, now in her kitchen, obliviously swirl and natter around her.
Credit to Ayckbourn for putting a failed suicide at the center of a comedy, and showing us that at the party that was pre-Thatcher England, it was always more about appearance and whose drink needed refilling (and in Jane Hopcroft's world, whose oven needs cleaning, brought to her attention by Kay's Eva Turner, sticking her head deep within, gas on).
And for Act III, in the largest kitchen of the night, the hosting Brewster-Wrights show their strain - in this case, at the hands of alcohol and estrangement - as Anne Scurria's tight hairdo and sensible tweeds of Act I collapse into wild, flowing hair and a nightgown. She's drunkenly nuts at this point, and Tim Crowe stands by with the mumbling detachment of the fading aristocracy.
Beyond the funny
It could all play very well at this level, and it does. But again, it is the tight knowledge these actors have of one another, after so many years together, that gives this night at Trinity, these domestic contrivances, a much greater interest. Watch Sullivan's takes, when confronting the lunacy he reenters at the conclusion of Act II. Or listen to Scurria's growl, through gritted teeth, at Crowe, as she commands him to get her the hell out of the Hopcrofts' kitchen, in Act I. Or watch the two alpha Trinity males dismiss the banter of Berenson, with knowing looks that read deeper than the talented stagecraft of all these veterans.
It's a fascinating vein, tapped in this production. Go, laugh, but watch closely. There's more than gin flowing here.
Absurd Person Singular, directed by Brian McEleney, runs through Nov 21. Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington St, Providence, 351-4242.
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