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Marriage as Sentence

Theater review: Actors fail to punctuate the between-the-lines text of 'Absurd Person Singular.'

September 30, 1997|DARYL H. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — Tsk, tsk, Alan Ayckbourn scolds--isn't it shameful the way people behave toward one another? Especially men toward women?

The English playwright has always taken a dim view of such behavior. Yet by ever-so-slightly exaggerating his point, he's able to get us laughing and perhaps even resolving to do better ourselves.

In a remarkable outpouring of plays, including "The Norman Conquests" and "A Chorus of Disapproval," Ayckbourn has proved himself an acute observer of humankind. His humor can be devilishly subtle, however--and this poses a problem for director Susan Boulanger and her community players at the Long Beach Playhouse.

Individually, the performers give the characters in "Absurd Person Singular" some nice flourishes, but they don't see the larger picture. Or, if they do, they don't show it.

The casual cruelty of the home runs headlong into the dog-eat-dog brutality of the working world in this quirky comedy, one of Ayckbourn's early successes.

*

The action unfolds over three Christmases in the early '70s (the time the play was written) as behind-the-scenes marital squabbles spoil holiday get-togethers.

The first occurs in the home of Sidney (Ernie Leyva) and Jane (Susan Colleen Williams), a young couple of limited means. Sidney is boorishly bossy to his wife, but he's all smiles around Ronald (Tom Moses), a banker from whom he hopes to get a business loan, and Ronald's wife, Marion (Beverly Turner). Geoffrey (Reed Boyer), an architect neighbor, and his wife, Eva (Rosemary McCarthy), are invited to round out the party.

At Geoffrey and Eva's the next year, a pre-party dispute prompts a mute and disheveled Eva to attempt suicide. The others keep barging in--oblivious--disrupting her plans. At Ronald and Marion's the following year, thickheaded Ronald watches his unhappy wife drink herself into oblivion.

As the years pass, Sidney's business venture steadily gives him the upper hand, and he smilingly yet ruthlessly wields his power.

Or, at least, that's the way it should play.

Ayckbourn writes as much between the lines as in them, and it is in the in-between where Boulanger and her actors get lost. Whole wordless mini-dramas should unfold between these characters, but Boulanger merely hints at--or overlooks--them.

*

Working in the playhouse's larger theater (200 seats on three sides of the stage), Boulanger also neglects to use half of the playing area--squishing action against the back wall, far removed from much of the audience.

Leyva is almost entirely out of touch with Sidney's dark side, which is doubly unfortunate because his character is supposed to be propelling the action.

Turner is a stitch to watch as her overly boisterous Marion descends into a snoring, alcohol-induced stupor. McCarthy is comically pathetic as the long-suffering Eva, who stumbles around her kitchen trailing the clothesline from a botched hanging attempt.

The others contribute deft touches as well, and costumer Donna Fritsche has come up with a hilarious succession of sparkly, leathery and Qiana-y '70s fashions.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

* "Absurd Person Singular," Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, matinees 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 12 and 26. Ends Nov. 1. $10-$15. (562) 494-1616. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Susan Colleen Williams: Jane

Ernie Leyva: Sidney

Tom Moses: Ronald

Beverly Turner: Marion

Rosemary McCarthy: Eva

Reed Boyer: Geoffrey

A Long Beach Playhouse production. Written by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Susan Boulanger. Set: Devin Gregory. Costumes: Donna Fritsche. Lights: S. L. Wellen. Sound: Jeff Deckner. Stage manager: Chris Barton.

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