SOLANA BEACH — They may speak the same language (more or less), but all things British do not work on an American stage.
Peter Nichols' comedy, "Born in the Gardens," at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, is so saturated with references to a particular locale (Bristol, England) and British societal idiosyncrasies that it would be easy for any director to lose sight of the play's more universal themes.
While the humor of the play is not totally lost, director Susan Shattuck's production suffers from an inability to negotiate through Nichols' dense political satire to reveal the poignant family exchange that gives the piece warmth.
As it stands, Shattuck has missed something buried in Nichols' wonderful characters, like the elderly Maud, who lives in a faded mock-Tudor mansion and talks to her television set. The production gets side-tracked by references to the kind of political mucking about Maud's son, Hedley, does as a "back bench" Member of Parliament.
Many lines that are no doubt hilarious in England are lost in American ignorance. We get the idea that "back bench" means Hedley has risen somewhat above his less-than-illustrious ancestral background (a drunken businessman father) but will never be completely free of the stigma of his place of birth.
What we miss--and might have been guided to focus upon--is the son in Hedley who has taken on a heavy guilt for his father's failings. He tries to placate it by foisting all sorts of modern gadgetry upon his slightly dotty mother: garbage disposals, freezers, electric heaters and, ultimately, a condo in London that will forever release her, in Hedley's guilt-ridden mind, from her "imprisonment" in the aging Tudor manor his father was so obsessed with.
Wendy Cullum is wonderfully nutty as the mother who imagines herself to be under constant attack by an infestation of mites. She's a bright spot in the middle of this confused production, despite a terrible makeup job and a mansion setting (designed by Tom Perkins) much too ordinary to believe.
Maud's still-at-home son, Mo, played by Brian Salmon, is nearly as addled as she. Salmon has a special gift for ultra-British, dour humor, used delightfully here to parody the devoted middle-aged son who talks to his tabby (who talks back) and is content to live forever on old jazz records, sessions with his corner drum set and memories of the Bristol that used to be.
Dear old "Dad" has died, finally, and this we know because Shattuck has placed on stage not only his coffin (as required), but a silly mannequin that looks like a leftover from some Dracula staging. Dad's passing is not much cause for emotion among this bunch. But it does bring Hedley up from London with schemes for moving his Mum off to a better home, out of Mo's range of influence. And it tempts Mo's twin sister, Queenie, back from California, where she has fled in her own attempt to get Bristol out of her mind.
Queenie's character is nicely filled out by Prudence Davison, but here the lack of sensitivity to this strange family's web of connection begins to show. Queenie was once molested by her father, it seems, and there is some sort of incestuous undertone to her interaction with Mo. Or is there? Has Shattuck added a twist that Nichols never intended?
Either way, it doesn't work. Nor does Hedley (played by Powell Harrison) ever display the concerns and shifts the character requires for his manipulations of wife, mistress, mother and the affairs of Britain. Harrison is still too unsure of himself and his lines on the small stage to achieve the needed personality development.
It should be noted that many of the accents among the cast are genuine, a relief in a production that could not have borne more problems.
Kathryn Gould has added some eye-pleasing costumes, particularly Queenie's mourning garb. Ralph Joyce's lighting is a splotchy mess that flickers when it shouldn't, fails to give the illusion of Gothic windows and distracts with bright spots in the wrong places.
Although it misses the opportunity to illuminate a familial message, this production of "Born in the Gardens" still offers the simplest kind of amusement, mostly through Maud and Mo's oddness and the basic social gibes we are able to understand.
"BORN IN THE GARDENS" By Peter Nichols. Directed by Susan Shattuck. Set Design by Tom Perkins. Costume Design by Kathryn Gould. Lighting Design by Ralph Joyce. Sound Design by Marvin Read. With Wendy Cullum, Brian Salmon, Powell Harrison, Prudence Davison. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., through April 6 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 971A Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.