Friday, August 8, 2003

British humor: Like the food, a bit dry

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Alan Ayckbourn is one of the funniest living playwrights in Britain. It is, therefore, no surprise that in a theater named after a region the British plundered, his humor doesn’t exactly hit the mark.

Ayckbourn’s play Relatively Speaking, now at the Acadia Repertory Theatre, no doubt has sent thousands of English audiences grasping at their sides and gasping for air.

And yet at nearly every laugh-line, the Acadia Rep audiences were silent. This is not the fault of the playwright, the director, nor even the actors, who, with a stiff English upper lip, kept on and made at least bearable what, elsewhere, would have been an entertaining show.

The problem was in the audience, and in particular the choice of this play for this audience. New Englanders are a genial lot, to be sure, but when faced with a play whose sole stock-in-trade is a cultural reference to somewhere else, we’re not a barrel of laughs.

Acadia Rep has built a strong reputation over the years as a place to see good, solid, fun summer theater. Ayckbourn’s plays have been well received by audiences before, the theater reports. If this year’s customers are like the overly considerate characters in the play, no doubt Relatively Speaking will be, too.

The plot hinges on people who are too polite to say what they mean, and overreach themselves to assume the best, imagining good things where they in fact have no clue what is happening.

A young man (Greg, played by David Blais), in love with a woman he has known less than a month (Ginny, Kimberly J. Forbes), proposes marriage just before she heads off for a weekend out of town. She says she’s going to visit her parents. Despite unmistakable signs that she is having an affair, he decides to surprise her — and them — by arriving unannounced to ask her father for her hand.

But he’s in for a surprise about his hosts’ identities. And they (Philip, played by Fred Robbins, and his wife Sheila played by Fred’s wife Liz) each suspect the other is cheating but are again, too polite to devise a confrontation about it.

Rather than the old-fashioned Yankee directness, the entire play is saturated with British deference. It requires, therefore, an implausibly large suspension of disbelief.

Nobody asks a pair of unknown arrivals who they are; when Ginny tries to tell Greg what’s going on, she doesn’t say, "they’re not my parents," but, rather, "she’s not my mother."

And what must be one of the funniest lines to all Britons is completely dead here: Fully uncertain who he is or why he has appeared in her back garden, Sheila invites Greg to stay for lunch. This invitation is one most British people could identify with, either as reflective of themselves or someone they know who is so proper they might just invite the bus conductor in for tea after a cheery request for a ticket. And it is also a line next to nobody in the US would ever utter to a stranger.

Nonetheless, the cast does well without much help from audience energy. Fred Robbins is an excellent blustering English country squire, his wife Liz is a dutiful Sheila, Forbes is a strong professional young woman with a streak of noblesse oblige, and Blais’s Greg is lovably missing something. Their awkward interactions are clever, and the actors seem to genuinely believe only what the characters "know" at the time.

Perhaps the crowning moment in this play, however, is the slapstick scene change partway through Act 1. Accompanied by the William Tell Overture, three stagehands, dressed as British removal men (that’s "movers") convert a London bedsit into a Home Counties estate garden. It was the first scene change I have ever seen that drew its own applause.

This is not Ayckbourn’s doing, however, but director Ken Stack’s. The playwright himself appears to falter from time to time in the play, resorting to weather as a conversation topic, as if even he couldn’t figure out where to go next.

He offers hints of hilarity, and of failure, including in this funny-but-not-here comedy a moment when Philip starts to laugh at a newspaper item, but then hems and haws his way to a halt. When Sheila asks what it was, he says, "I thought it was amusing, but it wasn’t."

Relatively Speaking
Written by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Ken Stack. With David Blais, Kimberly J. Forbes, Fred Robbins, and Liz Robbins. At Acadia Repertory Theatre, Mount Desert Island, through Aug. 10. Call (207) 244-7260.


• This weekend in Brunswick: Frank Wicks’s Soldier, Come Home on Friday ($10; (207) 729-6606 for reservations); teens’ international Story Quilt at the Theater Project, once Friday, twice on Saturday, and, just-added, once on Sunday (pay-what-you-want; (207) 729-8584).

• What’s J-C got this time? Revenge. John-Charles Kelly, a Maine State Music Theatre regular with a Vegas past, brings the Strip to Brunswick August 11. Lynne McGhee, Ed Romanoff, Joyce A. Presutti, and Ray Dumont will share the stage with three theater critics — but not the Phoenix’s. Call (207) 725-8769.

• The Deertrees Theatre Festival in Harrison hits August 14 and 15 with Vanities by Jack Heifner, a female coming-of-age story for the 1960s and ’70s. You may yawn (another coming-of-age tale?), but the off-Broadway hit made loads of folks laugh. Call (207) 583-6747.