Audrey Lynn Weston, Margaret Daly, Brad Bellamy,
and Angela Reed in Alphabetical Order
(© Suzi Sadler)
Audrey Lynn Weston, Margaret Daly, Brad Bellamy,
and Angela Reed in Alphabetical Order
(© Suzi Sadler)
Carl Forsman has directed Michael Frayn's 1975 comedy Alphabetical Order, now being presented by the Keen Company at the Clurman at Theatre Row, with astonishingly sure-handed control. Nathan Heverin has designed the initially cluttered set with scary accuracy. And the players are impeccably cast and thoroughly adept at inhabiting their role. And yet, the experience ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its commendable parts.

While the work deals with the very contemporary subject of a newspaper in dire economic straits, the play's threatened anarchy may feel a touch too British for stateside audiences fully to fathom. Another possible problem is the play's abrupt shift from a breathtakingly fast-paced (and relatively short) comical first act to a somber (and also short) second act.

The supremely untidy file-cabinet-and-random-stacks-of-papers environment we first encounter is in the library of a small-town newspaper. Into this daunting area comes 25-year-old Lesley (Audrey Lynn Weston, looking like a mix of Anne Frank and Didi Conn) for her first day on the job.

Expected to bring some order to the room, Leslie spends the first half of the play observing with mounting horror the helter-skelter behavior of head librarian Lucy (Angela Reed), Lucy's sometime lover and scatter-shot office intellectual John (William Connell), gabbily affable Jeffrey (John Windsor-Cunningham), chronically depressed and grunting Arnold (Brad Bellamy), gossipy martinet Nora (Margaret Daly) and ceaselessly jokey Wally (Paul Molnar).

By act two, the efficient Lesley has put everything around her in pre-computerized alphabetical order, but the co-workers are now chafing under her chaos-banished regime. (Not the least of the chafers is John, who's switched his amorous focus to Lesley.) However, everything involved with the interpersonal frictions loses importance when the entire team learns about a dire development affecting their very employment. At that anxious moment, they react with a sort of liberated giddiness - one that results in the stage looking worse than when first viewed.

If there's a larger problem with the play, it may be that Frayn has so many things occurring on stage that it obscures his basic intentions. Is he interested primarily in how Lesley's imposed order affects a disordered but still operating milieu, or is he attempting to make a broader though oblique political statement about government? One wonders if the audience would simply be guffawing more if they weren't preoccupied trying to figure out Frayn's mission and could simply enjoy the frenetic goings-on.