By James Foritano
Cambridge, MA- Sir Alan Aycbourn’s play about three couples in the London of the 1970s climbing the social ladder through three successive Christmas parties is deliciously interpreted by the six actors who both partner and subvert each other’s efforts.
Each couple, in this neatly contrived three act play, has its own act in which to star, in which to hold our attention as audience, not difficult, and their spouse’s attention almost impossible. In fact, so much mad motion does the social whirl impart to these dancing dervishes that they seem incapable of catching their own attention.
In the first of three almost identical kitchens, David Berger Jones, as ‘Sydney,’ and Samantha Evans, as his wife ‘Jane,’ frenetically plan to make their Christmas party a success in terms of boosting Sydney’s nascent career as a real estate developer.
Jane is determined to do what she does so well i.e. obsessively clean every surface in the kitchen so that if and when a guest steps in he or she will be stunned. Jane is already stunned by the magnitude of her task, to which Sydney adds every time he imprints a finger on a clean counter or takes a step.
Jane can’t see herself, Sydney can. Sydney shares our bemusement as audience at Jane’s hyperactivity. He is at once admiring and appalled, since such inhuman intensity, will, he knows, result in no human advantage.
Ignorance and knowledge, awareness and blindness, are ever present in exquisitely timed and executed sight-gags as the three couples take the stage to trip over their own and each other’s feet, waistlines and heads.
In a cameo appearance before their starring final act, Steve Barkhimer as ‘Ronald,’ a successful banker, and Stephanie Clayman as ‘Marion,’ a successful wife, intrude into the kitchen each with his/her own unique blend of ignorance/knowledge.
Ronald is so inured to Marion’s snobbery that he sits down to read an instruction booklet in which he has no interest and, it turns out, no comprehension of, while Marion pirouettes about Jane and Sydney’s kitchen with false praise for every appliance and cabinet door.
Marion’s absorption with rank and place, even of appliances, wears thin even to herself and her patter peters out, but not before she astounds her hosts, who can’t help sensing, as does the audience, an obsessive energy altogether out-of-place in this sparkling but very ordinary kitchen.
Indeed, an unease that is so profound that it unseats the characters’ very sense of location permeates this play. In the second act, which is supposed to star Bill Mootos as ‘Geoffrey,’ a temporarily successful architect, and Liz Hanes as ‘Eva’ his unbalanced wife, cameo appearances by the other couples turn into routs, as characters bowl into each other both psychologically as well as physically. Nothing not nailed down stays put, and even then not for long.
But beyond the farce and mayhem, we feel the pain. The absurdist capers orchestrated by playwright Ayckbourn and his acrobatic interpreters recall our own moments of stress, when, overwhelmed, we yearn for some stability: at best a sympathetic shoulder, at the least, a piece of familiar and solid furniture to lean against.
No sympathetic shoulders in this play and little solid furniture. The barking and snarling of an off-stage dog, ironically named ‘George,’ echoes, with no hint of domesticity, like the blood-lust of a werewolf going for the jugular of social vulnerability.
“Don’t show your fear” seems to be the watchword of each couple, indeed of each individual, as each holds up continually slipping ‘brave faces’ to the werewolves of their slippery territories.
Jane, the obsessively cleaning wife of Geoffery, avers merrily at one point: “I’d rather be down here on my knees rather than out there talking.” In other words, best not to show one’s self at all rather than expose one’s self to so many known and unknown pitfalls.
But a virtue of “Absurd Person Singular” is that the audience doesn’t need to stay alert simply to dialogue, however poignant, to read the fear and willful ignorance underneath the characters’ frenetic struggles for status and stability. Telling gestures and actions litter the stage: signposts to us, but not, alas to these puppets with no insight into their own actions.
Sidney, the developer, for example, is a whiz at solving electrical challenges of the contemporary kitchen; he’ll be down on both knees, flopping onto his back in a moment to set your plumbing straight, to chivy your balky electricity into a smooth flow again.
To Sydney an instruction manual is the poetry he breathes, but his own ‘instruction manual’ is a closed book. He’d rather feel around in the dark than turn on the light of self-knowledge. Ditto the other characters, in greater or lesser degrees, as they waltz haplessly through their own unlighted labyrinths.
The bliss of this ignorance comes with a heavy price: an awkwardly suppressed rage at the world and at themselves – at times ludicrous, at other times horrifying, often both.
The alchemy of “Absurd Person Singular” is that we see the tears through the manic laughter and claim them as our own.
(“Absurd Person Singular,” directed by Daniel Gidron, is presented by The Nora Theatre Company at the Central Square Theater from July 18t through August 18. For more information or to order tickets, visit http://www.centralsquaretheater.org.)