Christmas Cash Cow

'Tis the season to roll out the proverbial cash cows of Christmas--those obligatory feel-good productions, given a tragic twist perhaps or a comic shakedown, but ultimately setting their sights on invigorating the spirit and enriching the box office. After all, what would the holidays be without three different theatrical versions of A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker told from a puppet's point of view and a few Claus capers--Yes Virginia, There Really is a Santa, The Great Santa Kidnap and Santa Claus is Coming Out (playing only in New York)? It's hard to fault the local theater community, particularly this year when times are hard, attendance is down and charity is elsewhere. Why not rely on an old evergreen to decorate your performance hall? They're safe and effective, like a mild sedative.

Absurd Person Singular, now playing at Theatre Three, may not conjure up images of holiday classics, but its Christmas setting has made it a perennial favorite among artistic directors looking for seasonal fare. Although the play dramatizes three consecutive Christmas eves--past, present and future, each a year apart--the holiday season does little more than frame this "dark farce," as British playwright Alan Ayckbourn calls his work. Christmas serves more as a narrative container holding the story together than as a vehicle for exploring traditional holiday themes. Oh, there is Christmas music entwined among the scenery and the scene changes, but the play isn't about generosity or sacrifice or forgiveness, or anything remotely resembling Judeo-Christian ideals. Rather it deals with the author's pet subject--marriage--in this case, three marriages, each one in a different stage of dysfunction.

But Ayckbourn, perhaps England's most prolific and popular playwright, has more than marriage on his mind. He enjoys toying and teasing theatrical convention, and Absurd Person Singular, written in 1972, is his first attempt to script offstage action that simultaneously occurs with what transpires onstage. Rather than have the play take place in the living (sitting) rooms of these three couples, where formal introductions and cocktail chitchat will stop down the action, he chooses to set his play in their kitchens, where the real living is done and the game is already in play. Each offstage living room is used for its farcical effect: characters entering and exiting during ill-timed moments, doors swinging open to the swell of party noise, then closing abruptly to shut it out. Two characters, Lottie and Dick Potter, though integrated into the plot by the comments of other characters, never enter the kitchen(s), relegated to offstage action for the duration. A barking dog named George must suffer the same level of anonymity. Though interested in theatrical economy, Ayckbourn's intention is to let the audience do the character work for him, substituting its imagination for his. Oddly, the Theatre Three production allows the Potters (Corey Ellis and David Ellis) to surface as Christmas carolers who help move props between scenes, perhaps needing their strong backs as well as their strong voices.

The onstage action begins with an unlikely assortment of high, middle and lowbrow Brits, one couple per brow. Sidney and Jane Hopcroft are hosting a party this first rainy Christmas Eve and are damn nervous about it. Sidney (a tightly wound wannabe land developer) is an ambitious bloke who has extended his unctuous hospitality to Ronald Brewster-Wright (his banker) and his wife, Marion, and Geoffrey Jackson (an architect) and his wife, Eva, in a transparent attempt to enhance his social and business standing. Jane Hopcroft, played in fine obsessive-compulsive form by Lisa Fairchild, can find no better way to reduce the anxiety of expanding her social horizons than cleaning her immaculate kitchen. A lot. Sidney chides her fixation, but expects perfection from his wife, who seeks only to please him. Karl Schaeffer, on loan from the Dallas Children's Theater, gives a wonderfully textured performance as Sidney, who makes us laugh at his decidedly British fear of embarrassment while obfuscating his demeaning manner toward his wife--at least temporarily.

It's Jane's neurosis about leaving her kitchen that draws the other characters to her, including Ronald Brewster-Wright, magnificently played with true aristocratic nonchalance by John Davies. Ronald acts as bored as he is boring, reading the warranty instructions for Hopcroft's washing machine with the same feigned enthusiasm he has for the rest of life. Despite his social graces, Ronald has no sense of himself and no clue as to why his wives--past and present--find him so unbearable. We get our first hint early on, as current wife, Marion, enters the kitchen, her gin glass as empty as her life. Her condescension toward her hosts, whom she believes are beneath her, gets vented in her sardonic compliments about their kitchen appliances. Despite this veneer of mockery, Rebecca Graham does a remarkable job keeping Marion charming and graceful; this can be credited to Graham's stage presence, which is so lively and luminous she often pulls focus from the other actors.

Couple No. 3--Geoffrey and Eva Jackson--are coping with their own brand of misery: Geoffrey (John Athas) is a shameless albeit debonair philanderer who shows little compunction about savaging the feelings of his emotionally overwrought wife, Eva (Laurel Whitsett). Her kitchen is much like her life: a mess. She and Geoffrey are expecting guests for Christmas (it's Act 2 and a year later), but that won't prevent her from finishing her suicide note. Geoffrey has decided to leave her for another woman--and seeks to be quite civil about it. When the Hopcrofts and the Brewster-Wrights arrive, they mistake Eva's despondency for a neglected kitchen. They go about cleaning her oven, plumbing her sink and fixing her lights while a drugged and drunk Eva makes one unsuccessful (and laughable) suicide attempt after another--never uttering a word in the process. Whitsett's speaking parts in the play pale compared to this hilarious pantomime, which threatens to steal the show.

Scene 3 changes locales to the richer digs of the Brewster-Wrights, whose kitchen has more conveniences and less soul. Here is where Ayckbourn completes his emotional transactions, as we see the rise of the Hopcrofts, the demise of the Brewster-Wrights and the Jacksons just trying to hold their ground. Yes, Ayckbourn is writing about the balance of power in marital relationships, how it shifts between spouses when a crisis breaches confidence. Yes, he is writing about the ability of money to buy social standing, but not social grace. Yes, he is writing about how marriage murders individuality, particularly when one spouse dominates the other to the point of abuse. And his dialogue is crisp, his repartee clever, his farcical situations humorous. But none of this feels exactly fresh or refreshing. If not for the superb cast, tautly directed by veteran Niki Flacks, it is doubtful the play would be as entertaining as it is. Absurd Person Singular is early Ayckbourn (he has written 60 plays), but that doesn't excuse characters who are drawn too flat and seem more representational than real. And while broadness is good for humor, it makes the work seem slight and insignificant.

Which is, of course, what makes it such appealing holiday fare.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald