Ho, ho, ho

If playwrights and producers would only subscribe to the "Journal of the American Medical Association," they wouldn't have to waste so much time worrying about the nature of laughter and what generates it.

As the journal points out, laughter is merely a matter of the levator labbi superioris muscle lifting the upper lip, while the sygomaticus major, the sygomaticus minor, and the risorius muscles pull the angle of the mouth and the corners of the lips upward as well as sideways.

Few contemporary playwrights understand what triggers the levator labbi and the sygomaticus minor muscles as well as Alan Ayckbourn. The Britisher's comedies have been translated into 24 languages and performed in a slew of theaters around the world. In America, he's often referred to as the "British Neil Simon," though that may be downgrading Mr. Ayckbourn a bit. After all, you wouldn't call Cadbury's chocolates the "British Hershey's," would you?

Season's Greetings is one of Ayckbourn's funnier plays, and it's admirably spiced up like a bracing and tart holiday punch by Fort Worth's Stage West theater. The story concerns a British yuppie couple, the Bunkers, who have gathered some friends and relatives for a Christmas weekend at their country home. The play has little to do with Christmas, however, and everything to do with the futility of modern marriage and the banality of modern life. The laughter generated often is of the uncomfortable kind caused by painful self-recognition.

Mark Walker's clever set helps to establish the play's voyeuristic tone while underlining its theme of banality. The stage reveals a cutaway of the Bunkers' split-level home, as if a giant had lopped off the top of the house and most of the walls to expose the various rooms within. The audience then gets to peer at the Bunkers like boys observing ants in a glass ant farm.

While clean, neat, and generally cheery with its holiday decorations and Christmas tree, the Bunker home also is virtually devoid of personality or individual taste. Like a loaf of Wonder Bread, anything piquant has been bleached out of it.

The relationships of the various couples are bleached out as well. Neville Bunker is almost completely detached from his wife Belinda. While some men ignore their wives by playing golf or watching football, Neville tunes out Belinda by tinkering with gadgets.

Bernard, an incompetent physician, shuts out his wife Phyllis via his absorption with an interminable puppet show he stages each Christmas. Eddie is a cipher whose unsuccessful business and married life is coasting along on inertia. Rachel, Belinda's sister, has yet to couple, but she's trying. She's invited Clive, a young and recently divorced novelist, to the house in order to solidify their relationship. Rounding out the mnage is Uncle Harvey, a self-contented, right-wing retired security expert and paranoid bigot. The couples' various children are referred to often but never seen.

Each of these characters is brought to life through some fine ensemble acting. Director Jerry Russell, founder of Stage West, has assembled a talented cast of American actors supplemented by a couple of British imports. Rhea Anne Cook fills the stage with restless energy and repressed desire as Belinda. Though her English accent is credible, Cook's "Britishness" goes deeper than the brogue--it is expressed in her resolute cheeriness and in her authoritative, governesslike manner.

Belinda's energy is wasted on her husband, and she becomes increasingly frantic to exchange fluids with the writer, Clive. Tellingly, however, she admits to Clive that she really doesn't know much about books, or anything else, for that matter. Like each of the other characters in the play, she's intellectually and emotionally threadbare.

Jim Covault as Bernard also moves with a signature kind of body English, but it is in direct contrast to Belinda's cheery posturing. Bernard is a mild, milquetoasty Englishman, as easily bruised as a flower. An uncertain man who's found himself in an unwanted position of authority, Bernard is painfully aware of his shortcomings as a physician. In one of the play's funnier scenes, he vividly demonstrates his professional incompetence.

The best comic turn, however, is delivered by Barbara Way as Phyllis, Bernard's lush of a wife. Most stage drunks are tediously overplayed, but Way steers a hilarious course between obvious inebriation and feigned sobriety, and she fully deserves the round of applause she receives for her efforts.

Delmar H. Dolbier also is good as the paranoid Harvey. Naturally, he mistrusts the intellectual Clive and suspects him of being up to no good. At the moment of truth, Harvey displays his core incompetence as a security man, but is no less delighted with himself.

Eventually, each of the other characters also displays an essential ineffectuality. Clive admits his book is not worth reading, Eddie is revealed as a weak businessman, Rachel is sexually frigid, and Eddie's wife is not even capable of being a puppeteer's assistant. Neville is the only competent character on stage, but he also is the most emotionally retarded.

Season's Greetings includes some of the barbs, put-downs, and predictable comic rhythms associated with TV sitcoms or with the plays of the ubiquitous Mr. Simon. But it also includes considerably more subtlety and substance than a TV episode or a Simon concoction. While dressed in the guise of a holiday farce, the play takes a nasty swipe at the sheer, unremitting mediocrity of modern middle-class people. Ayckbourn holds them up to the light and finds them devoid of culture, devoid of conversation, and devoid of competence.

It's an unusually corrosive and funny Christmas card from a writer who makes you wince while you laugh.

Season's Greetings, through December 31 at the Stage West Theater. Call (817) 924-9454.

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P.b. Miller