If you want to see a good production of Alan Ayckbourn's "How the Other Half Loves," set your Way-Back Machine to 1997, hop in and travel yon (or hither, depending on the traffic) to Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory. That was a good production. Sharp. Witty. Robust.
If you want to see a deeply misguided production of the same play, at the moment there's one at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Ayckbourn's comedy of middle-class English morality and marital wars is supposed to hurt, but not quite this way. Staged by director Larry Arrick, this version never recovers from the stumblebum decision to relocate Ayckbourn's fubsy English middle-class drones to Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, circa 1971.
The prolific Englishman's 1969 play, one of his most popular in America, involves three couples, two dinner parties and one steaming pile of discord, fenced off by the British class system.
Fiona Foster (April Shawhan) has just spent her wedding anniversary evening dallying with Bob Phillips (Jamison Jones), a lout married to Teresa (Jeanie Hackett). Bob works in the office of Fiona's husband, Frank (Brian Reddy), a twitty managerial mass of cluelessness.
For various reasons of alibi and cover-up, a mousy accountant from the same office, William Detweiler (Keith Langsdale), is invited to dinner, along with his walking twitch of a wife (Lily Knight), at both the Fosters' and the Phillipses', on successive evenings.
This is Ayckbourn's primary technical achievement. We see the two dinner parties unfold simultaneously, in two different homes, on two different evenings. Which brings us to Stumblebum Decision No. 2. The dinner party scene only works if the poor Detweilers swivel in their chairs, whoosh, zip, bang, as they careen from one exchange to the other, one table to the other. That's how it's written. As staged by Arrick, and as handled by scenic designer Ursula Belden, the movement is determined instead by a clumsy, pace-clogging mechanical revolve.
When "How the Other Half Loves" traveled from England to Broadway in 1971, Ayckbourn presided over an Americanization of his script. "It didn't help the play, in retrospect," he admitted later. The changes only served to "thin the language out and narrow down the subtleties. . . . [It was] an unhappy compromise in many ways."
Moving the action to Southern California, with orange trees outside the Fosters' Beverly Hills pad and a Santa Monica beach house for the Phillips family, does nothing, nothing for the atmosphere of this piece. It flattens out the characters' socioeconomic distinctions. The imagery suggests sunny hedonism and a lack of repression. That's not Ayckbourn.
And the sound of the language is just wrong. I'd prefer a "How the Other Half Loves" set on Uranus, as long as we got the right English dialects, to a version set anywhere on this planet with American ones.
The cast struggles with the concept and their timing all evening. Things improve with the appearance of Langsdale's Detweiler (Featherstone in the original text) and, especially, Knight's put-upon spouse. (She takes a half-fall off a chair that's very funny.)
Overall, though, you never find out if any of the six performers are particularly skilled in any sort of comedy. Everyone's in a different play, and none of them, in the end, is in Ayckbourn's. It's hard to reconcile the quality of this effort--and "effort" is the word--with the best of the Pasadena Playhouse's recent peaks, such as "Light Up the Sky." Or even the recent "Blithe Spirit."
The laughs come now and then. But no one's going to learn anything about timing or rhythm or comic propulsion watching this localized, homogenized farrago of a show.
* "How the Other Half Loves," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 18. $13.50-$42.50. (626) 356-7529. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
April Shawhan: Fiona Foster
Jeanie Hackett: Teresa Phillips
Brian Reddy: Frank Foster
Jamison Jones: Bob Phillips
Keith Langsdale: William Detweiler
Lily Knight: Mary Detweiler
Written by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Larry Arrick. Scenic design by Ursula Belden. Costumes by Diana Eden. Lighting by Michael Zinman. Sound by Stafford Floyd. Production stage manager Jill Johnson Gold.