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THEATER REVIEW : 'Taking Steps' Not Ayckbourn at His Best


Some of the staging devices Alan Ayckbourn writes into his plays are ingenious. Others are gimmicky. "Taking Steps" offers an example of the latter.

The gimmick in this farce, now in its area premiere at the Ivy Substation, is that three floors of a decrepit English house are all represented on one stage level. So the actors pretend to climb up and down stairs. A lot.

At first it's mildly funny to see them miming their way up the "steps." Later they carry each other or fall down the steps as well, and a nimble tumble by actor Patrick McGowan produces a hefty laugh. But generally the device loses comic steam long before the play ends.

If the play had something else going for it, the steps business might not wear out its welcome so soon. Unfortunately, the rest of the farce is almost as flat as the set.

McGowan's bucket tycoon wants to buy this big, rambling house, which he has been renting with his wife (Maria Spassoff). Little does he know that she plans to leave him on the same night that his solicitor (Bill Brochtrup) and the seller (Patrick Roman Miller) arrive to seal the house deal.

His wife isn't completely unfeeling--she asks her brother (Christopher Kelley) to come over and console her husband. But her brother has troubles of his own--primarily in the form of his rebellious fiancee (Elizabeth Cheap), who left him at the altar, only to be arrested for soliciting.

The cast has its moments. The fleeing wife fancies herself a dancer; Spassoff's terpsichorean steps are momentary rib-ticklers. So are Brochtrup's tongue-tied passages and Cheap's petrified glances as she contemplates the domestic hell of Kelley's earnest droning. Miller's motorcycle outfit--reminiscent of a Power Rangers costume--contrasts amusingly with the smooth diplomacy his character exudes.

But it doesn't add up. With the audience split into two parts, facing each other over the playing area, there are too many moments when a line or gesture is directed too much to only one side, while the effect of it is lost--or at least diluted--on the other side. As staged by Allison Liddi for singular productions, the play seems wan, trivial and over-extended--lacking the shaded characters, satirical sting and irrepressible hilarity so often found in Ayckbourn's work.

* "Taking Steps," Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Dec. 3. $17. (310) 558-1555. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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