Jan Maxwell in the House(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Jan Maxwell in the House
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Famous for embarking on a new play only when he's figured out a gimmick, Alan Ayckbourn dreamed up a lollapalooza for his linked House. Performed simultaneously in adjacent auditoriums, the plays are written as a continuous narrative: When an actor exits the beautifully-appointed drawing room where House takes place, he joins the Garden action, and vice versa. Yes, Ayckbourn has certainly got a gimmick; what he didn't get are the plays.

Despite advance promo insisting that each play stands alone, this is not true. Standing together, they give the impression of two drunks trying to support each other down a thronged city street. Ticket buyers who wonder whether they need to see both are advised to see neither and save themselves the four-hour-and-20-minute immersion in Ayckbourn's twin swamps of frenzied tedium.

The situation in this: Country gentleman Teddy Platt (Nicholas Woodeson) has spent three weeks wondering why his flower-arranging wife Trish (Jan Maxwell) won't speak to him and, furthermore, why she pretends she doesn't see him even if he's standing next to her. He particularly needs her to make their baronial home (another of the season's stunning John Lee Beatty edifices) a place of calm and propriety when the lubricious Gavin Ryng-Mayne (Daniel Gerroll), an old school chum, arrives. Ryng-Mayne has come to sound Teddy out on standing for local M.P. He also intends to pursue his Tory party flair for sexual hanky-panky, in his case with minors.

Further knotting matters is that this particular day is the date of the annual summer fair; battalions of locals will be tramping over the Platt lawns to witness maypole-twirling and Morris dance demonstrations. Among those taking part are Joanna Mace (Veanne Cox), who's having an affair with Teddy that everyone knows about except her trusting, stammering husband, Giles (Michael Countryman). Also trudging back and forth while setting up the festivities are the martinet Barry Love (John Curless) and his browbeaten wife, Lindy (Ellen Parker).

As these three couples try each other's patience, young Sally Platt (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her hopeful suitor, Jake Mace (Carson Elrod), pass through various stages of teen infatuation; Sally would rather flirt with Ryng-Mayne, and Jake has to wait that out. The other major participants are the taciturn gardener Warn Coucher (James A. Stephens); the woman he's sleeping with, Izzie Truce (Patricia Conolly), who happens to be the Platts' malapropping cook; and Izzie's daughter, Pearl (Laura Marie Duncan), who happens to be the person Warn had been sleeping with previously. Then there's the visiting French film starlet, Lucille Cadeau (Olga Sosnovska), who's been driven down to open the fete by her agent and monitor, Fran Briggs (Sharon Washington). Lucille is actually on her way to a clinic to deal with her drinking problem.

The complications that ensue in the two connected works aren't worth describing in lengthy detail because they don't amount to a hill of beans. Early in the play, daughter Sally reports that Teddy isn't the least bit interested in following his father and grandfather into politics, so it is a surprise when he so quickly accedes to Gavin's request. However, it's no surprise at all when he dumps Joanna, makes an inebriated play for Lucille, and agreeably gives up the M.P. notion. As this is going on, Trish continues to ignore Teddy but continues to preach at Sally. Joanna, who's taken to hiding in the shrubbery and dirtying herself, confesses to Giles and then, going precipitately off the deep end, begins calling him Harold. Accusatory Barry orders twittering Lindy about until she's had enough. A gaggle of docile, not to say lifeless, children show up to dance around the maypole, but not before they and almost everyone else are drenched in a sudden summer thunderstorm. And so on and so on.

Hovering precariously between farce and sitcom, House and Garden cover familiar Ayckbourn territory in their depiction of troubled marriages. The Platts, the Maces, and the Loves are all experiencing marital strains to which sympathy might be an appropriate response if the participants weren't so doggedly humorless. How unamusing they all are in their barely believable interactions. How unfunny it is to have a gardener who rarely speaks but for the occasional muttered "Bloody women!" How hackneyed the drunk scenes are. How witless are Izzie's malapropisms ("incense" for "incest" and the like). How feeble is the first-act curtain line of House, as Lucille triggers a round of spouting in French and the monolingual Teddy, left out, begs: "Doesn't anybody here speak English?" If ever there was a live theater production that could use a laugh-track, here it is.

This being Ayckbourn, the dual works include the occasional amusing zinger. Fran Briggs, the fed-up agent who speaks a bluntly Anglicized French, gets off a few good ones that won't mean much to audience members who share Teddy's inability to speak French. Even the platitudinizing Trish finally lands some solid cracks when, in her only trip into the garden, she confronts Joanna and tells her what a silly woman she is. A few of the characters are appealing. Jake Mace is a likeable lad who seems motivated by recognizable human impulses; also likeable is his Morris-dancing dad, despite his status as that staple of farce, the unaware cuckold. And Gavin Ryng-Mayne's unapologetic, unpunished cad has his moments.

Nicholas Woodeson and Veanne Cox in the Garden(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Nicholas Woodeson and Veanne Cox in the Garden
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Any humanizing of the characters is largely attributable to the actors, who in this instance are also called on to be track-and-field athletes. Among those who run between the plays most effectively, with director John Tillinger neatly establishing the pace, is Daniel Gerroll, who rarely turns in anything less than a superlative portrayal; in particular, he's mastered a kind of nasal word torturing that upper class Brits do. Carson Elrod, as the soulful and persistent Jake, is immensely satisfying. Michael Countryman, his eyes betraying deep hurt, is fine as Giles. And Olga Sosnovska and Sharon Washington as (respectively) Lucille and Fran bring a brittle joy to the proceedings. Nicholas Woodeson does better by Teddy than the character deserves, as does Bryce Dallas Howard (who's still an undergraduate at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts) by Sally.

Many of the other actors simply can't overcome the parts they've been assigned. Worthy of special recognition for valor in the line of duty are Patricia Conolly, James A. Stephens, John Curless, Ellen Parker, Laura Marie Duncan, Jan Maxwell, and the usually delightful Veanne Cox. The latter two are reunited from Neil Simon's recent Dinner Party; Ayckbourn has often been called the British Neil Simon but, in this instance, such a comparison would be a gross insult to the American.

In addition to the amazing John Lee Beatty, the production team includes costumer Jane Greenwood, who proves she knows what the English wear on weekends; lighting designer Duane Schuler, who whips up a swell storm; sound designer Bruce Ellman, who has rounded up lots of bird song and thunderclaps; dialect coach Elizabeth Smith, who's done a bang-up job in that regard; and composer John Pattison, whose occasional melodies are rightly sitcom-like.

If House and Garden prove anything, it may be that two bad plays don't make a right. Better Ayckbourn should have worried less about the gimmick and more about concocting one good piece.