Cecilia Hart, Paxton Whitehead and Carson Elrod
in How The Other Half Loves
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Cecilia Hart, Paxton Whitehead and Carson Elrod
in How The Other Half Loves
(© T. Charles Erickson)
For Sir Alan Ayckbourn, the word "prolific" is a feeble description -- having written close to 75 plays in his career -- but no one will get a fight from me by declaring that of all his bittersweet comedies, the most hilarious is his 1970 play How the Other Half Loves, which is getting a perfect production at the Westport Country Playhouse. And the credit here goes not only to Ayckbourn, but to director John Tillinger, who maximizes every dastardly plot twist and guffaw-getting line in the script, and has been savvy enough to retain some of his previous powerhouse players from Westport's prior Ayckbourn outings.

The playwright is known for his ingenious comic set-ups, and this one's another dilly, as Ayckbourn follows two couples at the same time but not always together. Instead, each husband and wife romp around in their own living room -- which gives set designer James Noone the chance to alternate wall panels and parts of sofas to suggest the disparate homes. The neo-Greek one with its duel columns and pediment over the living room door is occupied by Frank Foster (Paxton Whitehead) and spouse Fiona (Cecilia Hart), while the space with the unprepossessingly modern furnishings and a crib meant for a never-seen toddler belongs to Bob Phillips (Darren Pettie) and significant other Teresa (Geneva Carr).

The catalytic Ayckbourn complication this time is that Bob and Fiona are having an affair, and their attempts to cover up the dalliance implicates -- and almost destroys -- a third couple, the entirely unaware William Featherstone (Carson Elrod) and his "lesser" half Mary (Karen Walsh). Because the Featherstones are mentioned separately by both Bob and Fiona in their alibis, the unsuspecting twosome end up at dinner parties that Ayckbourn contrives to occur simultaneously for the audience, although they're meant to unfold on successive nights.

In this screamingly funny work, Ayckbourn was already establishing the jaundiced view of middle-class marriage that he's presented in giddy variations ever since, including the recently-on-Broadway The Norman Conquests. In his conviction that marriage is anything but a sacred institution, Ayckbourn needn't take a back seat to anyone from Shakespeare's depiction of the homicidal Macbeths to Edward Albee's lacerating George and Martha. Better still, he has the knack of deriving non-stop laughs from their predicaments and personal foibles, and he writes parts for actors that ensure those laughs.

Tillinger's gifted troupe not only makes no mistakes in the playing, but makes the most of clever stage business that Tillinger layers on Ayckbourn's text. Still, there are two firsts among equals. With his oblong poker face and voice pitched somewhere below ground, Whitehead is such a polished farceur that he practically gleams. Elrod has only to show his mug to tickle the audience's funny bones, but he also puts the rest of his slim physique to comic effect. (His slouch alone is a thing of great humor.) Indeed, why not have this bunch of actors do every one of Ayckbourn's plays and keep the crowds laughing ad infinitum?