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Relatively Speaking

John Tillinger's production of Alan Ayckbourn's 1965 farce needs absolutely no improvements. logo
James Waterston and Geneva Carr
in Relatively Speaking
(© T. Charles Erickson)
These days when people are in agreement about something, they often describe themselves as being "on the same page." But what happens when four characters are so not on the same page they're not even in the same book? One extremely funny answer is offered in Alan Ayckbourn's 1965 comedy, Relatively Speaking, now being revived at the Westport Country Playhouse in a John Tillinger production that needs no improvements whatsoever.

The Ayckbourn romp, which was first done stateside at this venue in 1970, is often categorized as a farce; but it also has to be called a situation comedy. And, hoo-boy, what a situation it is! Greg (James Waterston) suspects something's fishy when Ginny (Geneva Carr), whom he's just asked to marry him, says she's going to spend Sunday with her parents in the country but refuses to take him along. After she gets herself up -- in an Emilio Pucci knock-off -- and leaves her humble flat for the train station, he follows her and somehow manages to arrive at the rural destination before she does. (The London flat and a verdant Buckinghamshire garden have been designed nicely and not inextravagantly by James Noone.)

What Greg doesn't know is that Ginny's visit is to former boss and lover Philip (Paxton Whitehead) to tell him their fling is over and done with. Philip takes Greg for the lover he believes his wife Sheila (Cecilia Hart) is seeing; meanwhile, Sheila, who knows nothing about her husband's affair, isn't sure what to think about Greg's appearance, but tries to be polite about it anyway. Ginny's eventual arrival, when the perplexed threesome are about to sit down to lunch, merely complicates matters -- until things get sorted out in their own fashion. While the two women are more or less satisfied at the resolution, the men aren't. As he often does, Ayckbourn leaves certain developments hanging amusingly in the air right to the curtain line.

The risk of praising this comedy of misunderstanding -- which definitely nods at The Importance of Being Earnest -- is in overpraising it The verbal pretzel-bending Ayckbourn goes through to establish the confusion of the extended comic minuet threatens to undo the play. Yet, once the four characters mix and match their bafflement, the laughs build beautifully. Moreover, it is conceivable to say that underlying the comedy's inspired foolishness is a sly comment on the failure of language as an effective form of communication or that Ayckbourn's work is a theatrical thesis on what happens when the logic of false assumptions is followed to its limits.

What Relatively Speaking does supply in spades are parts that actors seasoned in farce can wrap their talents around. Here, Tillinger -- whom Ayckbourn often favors for his pieces -- has employed a flawless quartet. Waterston, who did well by the above-mentioned Oscar Wilde classic a few seasons back, gropes hilariously through the proceedings like a giant question mark looking for a sentence. He's able to show what happens when sincerity attempts to operate in a not entirely sincere arena.

Playing opposite him, Carr is a determined exclamation point. Her Ginny, whose deviousness might impress as alienating in other surroundings, is utterly charming in these. Observing Whitehead as an increasingly fuming Philip and Hart as Sheila -- padding around in courteous puzzlement and Laurie Churba's breezy country frocks -- is like watching a Ronald Searle caricature striving to get through to Billie Burke. (Kudos, also, to Deena Kaye for seeing that the actor's accents are all on the same page.) Ultimately, it's a delight to be exposed to the symphony of bemused expressions the quartet find for their characters, who hope to convince each other they know what the dickens they're discussing.

The play is hardly a be-all-and-end-all work. Nonetheless, speaking not relatively but absolutely, I'd say it's a thoroughly enjoyable diversion.

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