Kathleen Early, left, Tessa Auberjonois, Robert Curtis Brown, Colette… (Henry DiRocco )
Shame and the British. They go together like tea and crumpets, Sandhurst and Sid Vicious. But South Coast Repertory’s broad staging of Alan Ayckbourn’s exercise in indignity, “Absurd Person Singular,” makes you yearn wistfully for more cheeky snaps of Prince Harry in Vegas.
Ayckbourn’s set-up is simple genius: Over three acts, we follow three couples at three Christmas parties in as many years, all seen from various kitchens. At the top, boorish entrepreneur Sidney (JD Cullum) and his wife, Jane (Kathleen Early), are killing themselves to impress banker Ronald (Robert Curtis Brown) and his snobbish spouse, Marion (Colette Kilroy). Looking down on the lot of them is philandering architect Geoffrey (Alan Smyth) and his pill-popping better half, Eva (Tessa Auberjonois).
Ayckbourn gleefully maneuvers this mismatched crew into ludicrous predicaments, including a droll second act sequence in which a suicide attempt is inadvertently and repeatedly foiled by the sheer obliviousness of others.
“Absurd Person Singular” is celebrating its 40th birthday, and it could use a sharp reinvention. The social satire that must have seemed cutting edge in 1972 now plays like a rerun of those harmless BBC comedies such as “Keeping Up Appearances” and “To the Manor Born,” which populated PBS before the Crawley family showed up. What saved those programs was character -- the slow build of quirks and loyalties that make a scripted creation feel like a genuine human being.
Unfortunately, director David Emmes doesn’t seem to have encouraged his actors to play it for real. For the most part, they remain brittle silhouettes, with the exception of the ever-grounded Auberjonois.
Because we don’t get a palpable feel for these couples, the ironic reversals that befall them don’t land with much impact. We’re left hanging from punch line to punch line, with the sense that the cast too has somehow been stranded.
This accessible suburban farce doesn’t need the edge of “The Ice Storm.” But a little more depth might have raised more laughs.
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“Absurd Person Singular” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Oct. 7. $20-$70. Contact: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.