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O.C. THEATER / JAN HERMAN : A 'Bedroom' Wake-Up Call

March 12, 1993|JAN HERMAN

Ayckbourn's comedy, which the Laguna Playhouse revives tonight, is more than a sex farce, the director says.

Over the last few years, South Coast Repertory seemed to have taken possession of Alan Ayckbourn's theatrical terrain. An SCR revival of his 'Intimate Exchanges" just closed. His "Woman in Mind" ran last season, and his "A Chorus of Disapproval" ran two seasons before that.

Tonight, at the Moulton Theatre in Laguna Beach, the Laguna Playhouse will stake its claim to another piece of Ayckbourn country with a revival of "Bedroom Farce," his 1975 comedy about several couples whose suburban lives are thrown into chaos by a pair of unhappy bumblers.

You can expect to see various characters running around in their underwear, hiding under beds, fighting with locked doors and so on.

Despite all its customary antics, the play is more than just a knockabout sex farce, says Robert Robinson, who is directing "Bedroom Farce."

"I think it's one of Ayckbourn's finer works," he said in a recent phone interview. "I'd call it a comedy of manners looked at in a farcical way." Although "awfully energetic and noisy at its peak," the general giddiness underscores a darker critique of the social mores being put on display.

As the reigning comic playwright of the British theater, Ayckbourn is often compared with Neil Simon. The two are not really comparable, though. "And they're very difficult to interchange," the British-trained Robinson said. "Simon doesn't work very well in Britain. A lot of actors there have problems doing him. Ditto with Ayckbourn over here."

Their subject matter and settings aside, the two writers exhibit striking differences even in their basic techniques. Simon, for example, is a master of the punch line. Ayckbourn is a master at avoiding the punch line.

"From Simon to Oscar Wilde and all the rest, most comedic authors set up a rhythm of lines," Robinson said. "First there's the argument or scenario. Then there's the punch line, which usually gets the laugh. And there it ends, until the cycle starts over again.

"Ayckbourn doesn't have that kind of rhythm. The secret to doing him is not in the lines but in the reactions. He rarely has punch lines. A lot of his comedic values comes from leaving things hanging in the air. He's probably the great virtuoso of the monosyllable. . . . "All you have to do is look at an Ayckbourn script and count the number of lines that say, 'Ah,' 'Oh,' 'Yes' and 'Well.' You'd be astonished at how many there are," he said. "The comedy actually lies in someone not knowing how to react."

The 61-year-old director, a Montreal native who lived and worked in England for 30 years, also noted that "Bedroom Farce" pays tribute to Ben Travers, a great British farce writer of the '20s and '30s who is virtually unknown in this country.

"Ayckbourn admired Travers' style and sense of play construction," Robinson said. "Travers was a mentor of his who lived to a very old age. He died only a few years ago. 'Bedroom Farce' uses a residue of his style."

Even today Travers' farces, such as "Rookery Nook" and "Thark," are done in regional theaters all over England. In his own time, "Travers probably made more money and had more performances than Noel Coward because every provincial theater in the country did him," Robinson said.

In addition to living in England, where he became familiar with the influences on Ayckbourn's work, Robinson delved more deeply into the works themselves at the Tacoma Actors Guild in Washington, where he has directed several Ayckbourn comedies since moving to the United States in 1982.

Another key to staging them successfully, he said, is casting them with an eye toward creating an ensemble performance rather than focusing on individual performers for starring roles. "That's very important in Ayckbourn," he noted. "There are no big roles. There are no leading roles. They're rare in Ayckbourn."

Robinson, who received his formal professional training at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, got his start in the theater as a teen-ager.

"I've been earning my living as a free-lance actor and director since I was 17 years old," he said. "My first claim to fame--such as it is--is that I was cast in the very first year of the Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Ontario."

That festival, largely created by the distinguished Old Vic director Tyrone Guthrie in 1953, is one of the seminal Shakespearean institutions in North America. The only ones older or as important are the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, founded by Angus Bowmer in Ashland, Ore., in 1935, the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, also established in 1935, and the New York Shakespeare Festival, founded by Joseph Papp in New York City in 1954.

Robinson recalls Guthrie himself directing the two plays during Stratford's maiden season: "Richard III," starring Alec Guinness, and 'All's Well That Ends Well," starring Irene Worth. Robinson had two minor roles: Ratcliff in the tragedy, a gentleman in the comedy.

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