Saturday, November 20, 2010

Final Weekend: "Absurd Person Singular" at Trinity Rep

Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular is unmistakably a comedy, but it is suffused with a Chekhovian melancholy, a sensitivity, as the title suggests, to the world’s absurdity, and a yearning for its elusive satisfactions. The same inarticulate want that simultaneously energizes and oppresses the characters in Uncle Vanya or The Three Sisters exercises its insidious control on Ayckbourn’s bankers, builders, and buffoons. For them, the party is, quite literally, always in the other room – but they’re stuck in the kitchen.

Absurd Person Singular follows three couples in three separate kitchens on three consecutive Christmas Eves in the early 1970s. I have tried several times to summarize the play, which is episodic and elliptical, and have found the results messy and unrevealing; so I won’t confuse or bore you with any of those details here. The first act concerns a social-climber’s attempt to host a party for a banker and an architect he hopes to impress; in the second act, the architect’s wife tries repeatedly to kill herself but is foiled by her obtuse and oblivious house-guests; and in the third act, the banker and his wife have fallen on hard times, but the morbidity of their lives is relieved – even as it is thrown into relief – by an unexpected visit from the social-climbing couple from the first act. The comedy is as often fast-paced and frenetic as it is verbal and a little cruel. Ayckbourn is an equal-opportunity satirist: he ridicules with equivalent relish the obnoxious social climber in the first act and the crestfallen banker in the third. To Ayckbourn, these characters are more alike than they are different. They are all, in the end, materialists: questions of the soul stump them, when they choose to even acknowledge them.

The performances are all lively, though some burn more brightly and more vividly than others - in particular, Phyllis Kaye’s as the architect’s suicidal wife. She is marvelously acidic as a contemptuous party guest in the first act; almost entirely mute as she contemplates her suicide throughout the second; and chastened but resolved in the third. Kaye, so vulnerable in last year’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone and so vicious in The Secret Rapture, is on a roll. Fred Sullivan, Jr., who plays her husband, is also a treat – though one would not confuse his performance for a full meal. Sullivan has a long bravura moment in the second act, and is floppy and funny elsewhere, but his acting, I think, elicits more admiration than emotion in the audience. His phrasing and diction are so precise, one wishes they were employed in the service of more generous feeling. Nevertheless, one can’t help being awed by his prowess and control. And Timothy Crowe gives another in a string of memorable and moving performances, this time as the banker who ends the play too poor to heat his own home. More conspicuously than the other actors, Crowe gives the play its Chekhovian dissipation; he embodies its sense of squandered spirit and baffled protest.