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BEN HORAK/SCR
Tessa Auberjonois as Eva and Alan Smyth as Geoffrey in Alan Ayckbourn's "Absurd Person Singular" at South Coast Repertory. It's the season opener for the Coast Mesa theater.
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Issues trump comedy in SCR's season opener

THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

It would be easy to dismiss Alan Ayckbourn's "Absurd Person Singular" as a lightweight British comedy, and a dated one at that.

His 1972 play, which opened South Coast Repertory's season Friday on the Segerstrom Stage, contains plenty of farce of the mildly naughty British variety. Lines such as "that would tickle Dick no end" are typical. And the second of its three acts is full of the slapstick, double entendres and pratfalls that playwrights such as Ray Cooney ("Run for Your Wife") have been dining out on for decades.

But at its heart, this story about three couples jockeying for dominance and looking for love in all the wrong places is much more ambitious, and ultimately more poignant, than a mere door-slammer with racy jokes. It has remained one of the prolific British playwright's most popular works because it demonstrates what he can do best: tackle meaty issues without betraying the seriousness of his intent until after the curtain falls and you ponder certain moments.

The action unfolds on three successive Christmas Eves. Each scene is set in the kitchen of a different couple in a town somewhere in England's Midlands.

In the first act, Sidney and Jane (JD Cullum and Kathleen Early) are hosting a soiree for neighbors and, more importantly, people they want to impress. As the play begins they fuss around their kitchen, full of the trappings of '70s middle-class status, including a new washing machine.

Jane is a neat freak who is driven into a frenzy by the pressure of hosting. Sidney is obsessed with keeping up appearances, especially with Ronald (Robert Curtis Brown), the local baker.

From the outset, there's trouble brewing below the surface of this British Mayberry. That tension frequently manifests itself in funny "oops" moments.

Sidney, in his distraction, mistakes fly spray for air freshener. Jane locks herself outside in a rainstorm.

Ronald's wife Marion (Colette Kilroy) is a bitter drunk who hides her anger behind garrulous good cheer. She raves over Sidney and Jane's workaday kitchen. Peering at the washing machine's controls, she gushes, "Whites, colors ... my God, it's apartheid!" (Undoubtedly that was a funny line in 1972.)

Sidney needs a loan from Ronald in order to expand his business. Architect Geoffrey (Alan Smyth), on the other hand, is already on the fast track to success. His big projects and overweening ambition have made him a brash, womanizing lout. His wife Eva (Tessa Auberjonois) is enduring her heinous husband with whatever form of medication is on hand. Booze and antidepressant drugs are her top choices, never a good combination.

The second act takes us to Geoffrey and Eva's messy bohemian home. Their world is about to fly apart as he prepares in vain to tidy the place for their holiday get-together. He's manic and distracted; she's doped up and suicidal.

Aychbourn's running gag in this scene is that everyone volunteers to help the struggling Eva clean up her sordid place, and nobody notices how close to the edge she is. It's a joke that quickly wears thin and grates on the nerves of those viewers whose willing suspension of disbelief has limits.

In the final act, we're at Ronald and Marion's posh abode, but their world (and everyone else's) has changed. So have the dynamics of every relationship.

The heat is off – ostensibly because the furnace is on the blink yet again. But we soon discover Ronald's bank is in serious trouble, and Sidney, whose business ventures have met with spectacular success, is his main depositor. Marion, whose marriage to Ronald showed signs of strain in the first act, now lives in her bedroom in a booze-soaked haze. Ronald pads around his place like a confused, neutered house cat.

Geoffrey has suffered a career-ending setback: one of his projects has met with disaster, and his ebullience and randy philandering have been replaced by glum silence. Eva, on the other hand, seems energized by her husband's crisis. She professes she doesn't love him any more, but her actions betray her words: she pleads with Sidney to consider Geoffrey's services for a planned development.

In the play's best and last moment, Sidney and Jane revel in their newfound position at the top of the totem pole. It's a scene that's simultaneously funny and disturbing, and a brave note on which to end a comedy.

Director David Emmes' production is made worthwhile by his attention to the intent behind seemingly innocuous words and by his performers' well observed performances, which cleverly flesh out telling details.

Sidney, so furious and pent up in his kitchen, instantly slaps on a mask of strained bonhomie whenever he enters the living room to talk to his guests (one of many wonderful moments in Cullum's nuanced performance).

Early turns Jane's OCD tendencies moments of sadness as well as comedy. Brown finds similar tragedy in the silences between Ronald's ponderous and innocuous lines.

Kilroy, Smith and Auberjonois play characters whose behavior is pointedly over the top, but their excesses are often rooted in pain – particularly Auberjonois' Eva. She must make her character's suicide attempts seem pathetic yet funny, and she pulls it off with aplomb.

Scenic designer Sara Ryung Clement and costume designer Nephelie Andonyadis get the period details just right. Jane and Sidney's kitchen is the picture of inadvertent tackiness and middle-class yearning. Geoffrey dresses like a member of the Moody Blues in '60s hipster clothes that were slightly out of date by 1972.

Ayckbourn's comedies, especially the older ones, can show their age. But few playwrights know the niceties and secret battles of one-upmanship that define the class system. And a play that features the effects of sudden reversals of fortune has undeniable resonance in the shadow of the Great Recession.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7979 or phodgins@ocregister.com


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