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Absurd Person Singular

Alan Ayckbourn's play about three unhappily married couples gives new meaning to the term "kitchen-sink drama." logo
Deborah Rush and Mireille Enos in Absurd Person Singular
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
There was a time when the term "kitchen-sink drama" referred to a realistic play about the working class. The phrase was coined in 1950's England by a sour critic dismissing what John Osborne and those influenced by him were doing. (Perhaps much to the critic's surprise, the phrase stuck.)

Now, however, it seems that time has come to an end. Only last week, audiences at the Roundabout were invited to stare enviously at John Lee Beatty's rich-folks kitchen in Richard Greenberg's A Naked Girl on the Appian Way. This week, patrons of the Manhattan Theater Club are treated to not one but three beautiful Beatty kitchens in the revival of Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular. It's starting to look as if this season could represent an upscaling of "kitchen-sink drama" to include works about middle- and upper-class marrieds. (I'm not suggesting the target audiences for these offerings are limited to ticket buyers having their kitchens redone. But those falling into the category may nonetheless want to check out Beatty's sets. They might even want to consult with him!)

This three-act play concerns three well-heeled, well-educated couples trying to make some sense of their marriages. Why Jane (Clea Lewis) and Sidney (Alan Ruck), Eva (Mireille Enos) and Geoffrey (Sam Robards), and Marion (Deborah Rush) and Ronald (Paxton Whitehead) remain hitched is a big question mark; it appears that they do so simply because Ayckbourn wants to bring all of them together for three successive Christmas Eves when no one else will have them. They remain linked -- both as couples and as friends -- by default.

It's Ayckbourn's notion that when these acquaintances congregate, in one kitchen per year, the dynamics among them shift. Compulsive cleaner Jane and impatient Sidney look like losers, but they climb the social ladder by dint of his commercial ambitions. Depressed Eva and philandering Geoffrey remain uncomfortable with his straying. Eva, suicidal throughout the entire second act, is able to reach a point where she finds her footing and says, "It's simply that you're no longer a man I care enough to throw myself out of a window for." Meanwhile, architect Geoffrey goes after a project that collapses around him. Bland banker Ronald watches as his snobby second wife Marion descends into alcoholism; they're eventually forced, as are Eva and Geoffrey, to put up with the advancing Jane and Sidney.

Ayckbourn infuses some of the proceedings with humor, including physical humor. There's plenty of that here as these folks variously get soaked in the rain and drenched under sinks, climb on a kitchen table to hang from an overhead lamp, stumble around drunk, and play games involving oddball dancing. But Ayckbourn has never had a particularly sunny view of the bourgeoisie. He often frames his portraits of middle-class, suburban English life with a clever theatrical gimmick -- here, it's the three separate kitchens -- and the six characters he trots out this time aren't terribly attractive. Indeed, two of the men are outright boors; one is well-meaning but of the Colonel Blimp school. One of the women suffers from echolalia, another is bent on self-destruction, and the third is spiraling into alcoholism. They're not a fun crowd, and it's hard for the audience to muster concern for them.

Once again, director John Tillinger has taken on the job of making the appalling appealing. For some time, he's been the go-to guy for English comedies and may be getting a bit tired. He has smartly had Jane Greenwood design 1970s' costumes for a piece first presented on Broadway in 1974, and he certainly keeps the actors moving through those three kitchens at a brisk tempo. A few of them, particularly Ruck and the normally amusing Lewis as the arrivistes, occasionally do too much. But Whitehead and Robards generally hit their stride and keep it, while Rush makes hay as the imbibing Marion. Playing Eva, Enos has accepted the impossible task of remaining believably self-destructive for a full act; moreover, she has taken on her second consecutive Sandy Dennis role. (She was Honey in the recent Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? revival.) Can Any Wednesday be far behind?

Don't ask for an explanation of the play's title. Ayckbourn has to plan ahead at his Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough and, apparently, he sometimes chooses a title well before he writes the play attached to it. Because he's such a prolific writer, it would be interesting to know if he ever has time to go back and refine any of his works; if so, here's one at which he might want to take another pass.

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