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Opposite Sets

With actors madly scrambling between two different stages, House and Garden become an ingenious laugh machine.

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Where are they now? Olga Sosnovska and Nicholas Woodeson in a scene from House in Alan Ayckbourn's double bill.  

Alan Ayckbourn, author of some 60 mostly memorable plays, has also reinvented space and time, geometry and chronometry. What in lesser hands might be mere gimmickry becomes, in his, genius. That word is usually invoked posthumously, but why begrudge it to a living artist who time and again has given us so much pleasure and pabulum rather than the usual Pablum?

What the masters of comedy (and few, if any, American playwrights) have always known is that comedy is only one face of the coin whose obverse is tragedy. The characters in Ayckbourn's twin plays, House and Garden, are funny all right, but each of them carries inside, or causes in others, a goodly share of sadness and dejection. House and Garden unfold simultaneously to the minute in an English country house and the lower, unrulier part of its garden, and when any one of the fourteen characters leaves the stage in one play, it is usually to go onstage in the other.

Thus House and Garden can be performed only in adjoining theaters, and require split-second timing not only from the often frantically shuttling (backstage or through the lobby) performers but also, and first of all, from the author. Do not assume, however, that this is merely a cute tour de force; it is, aside from much laugh-out-loud fun, also a serious demonstration of the idea that what happens to people in contiguous but separated places gravely affects, perhaps even radically changes, their tragicomical lives.

The "upstairs" characters are the prosperous Platts, businessman Teddy and homemaker Trish, and their brilliant 17-year-old, A-student daughter, Sally. Also the neighboring Maces, naïve Dr. Giles and unbalanced Joanna, and their small-time-journalist son, Jake, in love with Sally, who may or may not reciprocate. The "downstairs" folk are the surly and taciturn Platt gardener, who cohabits with both the silly Platt housekeeper and her slatternly chambermaid daughter. Also a neighboring caterer, Barry Love, always bullying and berating his eager but fumbling wife, Lindy. These two are erecting a maypole and tent for the annual garden fest to delight the local children.

In the house, there is to be a luncheon party, to which a minor, non-Anglophone French movie actress, Lucille Cadeau, is invited (as a second choice) to open the subsequent festivities. She is chauffeured and guarded by a fierce female agent, who is to deliver her promptly afterward to a very posh nearby rehab center. Also invited to lunch is a long-ago schoolmate of Teddy's, Gavin Ryng-Mayne, a snobbish novelist-playboy and political hobnobber, who will presumably deliver the prime minister's invitation to Teddy to stand for Parliament.

In the course of an August Saturday, one illicit affair will end and another begin, while some dalliances will lead to frustration. One person will become totally unhinged, two will cut marital moorings, and some will be embroiled in various rowdy or ridiculous messes. Even a stentorian dog and some underfoot children will add to the midsummer madness. Tangled nets will be woven, Gordian knots cut through. Even that Gavin always introduces himself as "Ryng-Mayne with a y" (modestly passing over a second y in silence) can give rise to a hilarious exchange.

Under John Tillinger's endlessly inventive direction, everyone in the cast is at least good (which includes plausible British accents and fluent French from Lucille), with some performances truly outstanding. Take Jan Maxwell's Trish, who when she pretends that her cheating husband does not exist sends comic shudders (a special kind) up and down our spines. And Nicholas Woodeson's Teddy and Olga Sosnovska's Lucille, who must gambol with each other across a language barrier and through a sidesplitting mishap, always thrillingly daffy. Further, Ellen Parker, who makes the sweetly helpless and hapless Lindy a wistful joy. Again, no one in the theater or even in an asylum can do hysteria better than Veanne Cox (Joanna); Daniel Gerroll's Gavin makes cool sophistication or condescending hauteur roll off his tongue like champagne off a duck's back.

The sets, costumes, and lighting are dazzlingly handled by John Lee Beatty, Jane Greenwood, and Duane Schuler, respectively, and even the water, whether as a highly unpredictable fountain or a dependably British downpour, contributes handsomely to the clockwork chaos. See the plays preferably in alphabetical order and on the same day, but such is Ayckbourn's mastery that each can stand on its own legs as securely as the actors can run on theirs.

Richard Vetere is a published poet and novelist, a produced film and TV writer, and completely unknown to me. One Shot, One Kill, winner of a New Century Writing Award, is a fairly accomplished play about hairy goings-on at the U.S. Marine Corps Sniper School at Quantico, where a major, a sergeant, and the latter's wife are locked into a deadly conflict between love and duty, between life and death.

The one problem is that I don't buy a word of it. Would you believe that in a Marine Corps school, where most of the dialogue is in shouts, a major and a sergeant would quote Milton at each other? And that is only the least of its reachings; the play stretches like an accordion but yields precious little music. One of the actors, Andrea Maulella, is described in her bio as making "a mean pan of lasagna." Unfortunately, One Shot, One Kill calls on her lesser, acting, skills.

Mike Leigh, better known for his films (which I don't particularly relish), is also the author of numerous plays. The New Group has presented two of them, Ecstasy and Goose-Pimples, which were tolerable. Not so Smelling a Rat (1988), which is totally without merit, except that it inaugurates a potentially attractive 42nd Street five-theater complex. In this anti-farce, a boss exterminator, Rex Weasel, comes back unexpectedly from his vacation but hides in a closet when his employee, Vic Maggot, comes in with wife Charmayne to inspect the apartment. They, too, hide in a closet when the boss's mostly mute son, Rock, and his ditzy girlfriend, Melanie-Jane Beetles, come in for some sex. Weasel emerges with a gun, Beetles locks herself into the bathroom, and Maggot rattles on, using "inasmuch" in every other sentence and stringing together mangled platitudes.

Scott Elliott, the director, has tried to force-feed Leigh's bumbling comedy into Pinterian creepiness -- itself a dubious aim -- but, unlike a Strasbourg goose, it yields something not so much inflatedly liverish as deflatingly bilious. And Elliott has even directed a good actor, Terence Rigby, into shouting his lines, for which a mere whisper would be overloud.

House and Garden
By Alan Ayckbourn; directed by John Tillinger; starring Jan Maxwell, Ellen Parker, Veanne Cox, and Daniel Gerroll.
One Shot, One Kill
By Richard Vetere.
Smelling a Rat
By Mike Leigh; directed by Scott Elliott.


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