Bland holiday treat hard to swallow

When people refer to playwright Alan Ayckbourn as "the British Neil Simon," the comparison is usually intended to be a compliment. Both men are god-awful rich (with Simon probably in the lead, but only because of the countless American movie versions of his plays); both, at their best, have stitched glittering observations, asides, and one-liners onto broadly colorful patterns of sex and class, bridging the distance between high and low comedy, satire and farce; and both occupy a rarefied field we might call "marquee playwrights," writers whose names sell their plays as surely as the stars who perform in them.

The latter two distinctions occasionally become stones in the shoes of unsuspecting theatergoers who wander into an Ayckbourn production expecting profound insight into issues of how romance and economy intersect in contemporary middle-class England. Or, at the very least, expecting a high score on the laugh meter. The playwright's giant reputation becomes an irritant when these people realize that his name would enable Ayckbourn to get financial backing to stage his grocery list, if he so chose.

With the American premiere of Dreams from a Summer House, Theatre Three's production of a musical comedy by Ayckbourn with music by John Pattison, Ayckbourn has staged not his grocery list, but what would appear to be a numbered item on his professional to-do list: 3. Write an original musical. Now that Theatre Three, the theatrical troupe most associated with Ayckbourn's name in the American Southwest, has brought the world its bruisingly pleasant debut version, the British playwright can cross that line out and pay his masseuse another month's salary.

Prior to this new show, Ayckbourn had written two plays with music, including a musical collaboration based on the works of Kingsley Amis that's being re-suited for an upcoming Broadway appearance. But Dreams From a Summer House is his first declaration of independent vision in musical form; he conceived the story and lyrics, then turned to John Pattison to write the score.

There is much that is familiar here, and sometimes cripplingly so: The legendary Beauty and the Beast fable, from which Ayckbourn borrows the title characters, has been sampled more relentlessly on film and stage than hip-hop musicians have nicked George Clinton's grooves. Ayckbourn, in affable Dr. Frankenstein mode, has grafted Beauty and the Beast onto a contemporary romantic comedy composed of archetypes (horny old husband, sexually blooming tomboy, ball-busting divorcee) whose ubiquity in previous comedies great and small throws a blank white shroud over the proceedings here. I'd call it a "snow job," but that implies more cynicism on Ayckbourn's part than I think existed for the half hour it took him to recycle this show. As a writer who presides over his own theater company in Scarborough, he's got the resources at hand to present his trifles, at the very least, as handsome hors d'oeuvres.

As staged in a blur of brisk blandness by Thurman Moss, Theatre Three's Dreams from a Summer House is a perpetual confrontation between British stoicism and the supernatural tropes of the fairy tale. The play's humor comes from this gimmick, as we watch a mostly good-hearted, if terribly confused, gallery of Brits confront a beauty "from the other side of reality" who can communicate only by singing and a high-collared beast who snatches ex-wives. Acerbic illustrator Robert (Jeff Herbst) finds his newest project, a children's book, disturbed by the intrusion of Belle (Lisa-Gabrielle Green), a woman who's entered our dimension to escape Baldemar, also known as Beast (Greg Dulcie).

It's difficult to say which fate is worse, spending eternity with a hairy monster or attending a garden party at the home of the overstuffed Huxtables, fluttery Chrissie (Sharon Bunn) and lusty Grayson (Terry Vandivort), who are allowing their ex-son-in-law, Robert, to work on his children's book in their estate. Meanwhile, their daughter and Robert's ex-wife, Amanda (Lori Evanson, in a shrill performance of a shrill character), barges back home unexpectedly with meek-as-a-mouse second hubby Sinclair (Chapman Locke, a charming goof who veers widely in and out of a British accent). At the same time, Amanda's tomboyish 18-year-old sister, Melinda (Pamela Raquel Doherty), buzzes around the periphery trying to get the beleaguered Robert to notice her.

If I'm haunted by the suspicion that this musical could've been better written and staged, it's Theatre Three's fault for establishing a precedent. Last season's T3 production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods took the characters from several different Brothers Grimm stories, reshuffled them, and laid out a tarot deck of betrayal, mismatched alliances, and beautiful yearning. Sondheim and Theatre Three then read us our fortune using shades of contemporary cynical humor; the universal psychological significance of European fairy tales has never seemed more vivid. That show even featured Summer House cast member Greg Dulcie as another beast, the Big Bad Wolf, but there he was a sexy, strutting taker of virtue, a smooth operator with claws and a pelt. The Beast in this new show seems uptight, not to mention overcoiffed, by comparison.

I don't blame Theatre Three for touting Dreams from a Summer House as "the American premiere of a new play with music by Alan Ayckbourn"; his is a brand name of international commercial appeal. "New" is a relative term when you're talking about this kind of musical, which of course is performed not to challenge or even particularly to enthrall, but to comfort us with its reiteration of the folly and fascination of love. But one form referring too much to itself eventually cancels that form out completely, which is the biggest criticism I have of lazy musicals: sticking close to the dim light from their own archaic but fiercely tended fire, they allow no light in from the outside world and scurry about like barely distinguishable shapes in a dark haze of sentiment.

Honoring a venerable theatrical genre is fine, but tribute becomes tribulation when so many parts of a show have been plucked from other sources and strained into a blandly sweet holiday mush. Theatre Three and Ayckbourn were all aglow with sincere intent to charm while they spoonfed me this lumpy treacle. But by the time Dreams from a Summer House lurched toward its inevitable conclusion of "unlikely" couples and calcified shards of romantic wisdom, they were gagging me with that spoon.

Dreams from a Summer House runs through December 7. Call 871-3300.


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