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By Robert Bethune
Blackbird Theatre's production of Alan Ayckbourn's How the Other Half Loves is a genial, relaxed, happy production that doesn't seem to fit a play that doesn't seem to want to be genial, happy and relaxed.
Director Barton Bund's program note about Ayckbourn mentions that he writes "athletic" scenes, which is one way to describe the way farce - both Ayckbourn's claim to fame and his natural metier - demands a constantly tightening manic intensity that makes things make sense even though they have no business making sense. Bund's production, however, doesn't play it that way. The play is funny, and the production is also funny, but the two are not funny in the same way. The evening, though enjoyable, doesn't quite gel.
Once Ayckbourn's story begins to push things forward about halfway through the first act, there is plenty to enjoy and to laugh at in this comedic mixture of errors and deceptions. Too much plot description here will spoil the fun, but the fundamentals of British farce are present in force - namely, is anybody sleeping with anyone, and is anybody's brain actually functional? From Charles Southerland's pleasantly senile take on the company boss, Frank Foster, to Kate Orr's desperately hiccuping Mary Detwiler, these are (in Scott Adam's phrase) seriously defective people, and much of the humor comes from our sense of superiority - an age-old well from which a lot of comedy can be drawn.
It is no accident that the funniest scenes are also the most physical. When the food starts flying and knees start connecting with groins and knives stop being mere tableware, the funniest, most energetic scenes happen and the farce energy starts to flow.
Ayckbourn is also famous for producing intricately structured Rube Goldbergian intertwinings of time, space and action, as in his famous trilogy, The Norman Conquests, in which each play is the off-stage action of the other two. In this play, his intertwining of the life of two separate households on one set, and at one point the action of two separate dinner parties in one scene, is interesting but perfunctory, as though he knows what is expected of him and dutifully delivers it. In The Norman Conquests, the place-and-space game is very much to the point, since the intricate simultaneity of the action builds the intensity of the characters and the action. Here, it seems rather off the point; the principle virtue of the structure is simple efficiency - we accomplish in one scene what would otherwise take two, a virtue in a production that runs two and a half hours with intermission.
For Ayckbourn, there is a lack of spine in his treatment of the action. Marital infidelity causes real pain, even as treated by writers of farce. There is real pain behind the comic facade. That emotional edge provides farcical treatment of infidelity the bite, the zing that makes it work. Ayckbourn lets the air out of the balloon. Forgiveness is easy, un-earned, graceful and costs nothing. The balloon needs to burst with a bang, but in this balloon there is only a graceful pop.
Blackbird Theatre, 1600 Pauline, Ann Arbor. Oct. 10-12 & 17-18. Tickets: $20. For information: 734-332-3848 or www.blackbirdtheatre.org.
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