HO HO HO! Angela Brazil and Stephen Berenson in Absurd Person Singular.
As playwriting goes, there's prolific and then there's prolific. There's, say, Shakespeare with his piddling 38 plays. And then there's someone like Alan Ayckbourn: 73 full-length babies, and counting.
Trinity Repertory Company is counting on one of them, the 1972 Absurd Person Singular, to speed along its season (through November 21). Like most of the British playwright's work, it's a domestic comedy, his celebrated forte. This particular play is appreciated critically for balancing farce with seriousness. It's probably the most widely and frequently produced of Ayckbourn's work, about which he has said that he has "tried to explore people a little more, and at the same time to put back some of the hijinks." Writing about the play in The Times of London, Benedict Nightingale praised in prolix abandon: "Last night I sensed an almost masochistic glee in Ayckbourn's determination to set himself scary technical and emotional tests — and I felt he'd passed them all."
Absurd Person Singular follows three married couples over the course of three consecutive Christmas Eve parties. We don't see them in the living rooms where the parties are happening but rather out back in the kitchens, where the troubled and troublesome individuals can complain and carry on in private.
Trinity company member Brian McEleney, who is directing the production, sounds as delighted with the play as audiences have been. "It's like a very, very funny Chekhov," he says, "with real people in real, real situations, and comedy that comes from people being overinvested in the wrong things."
He insists that although Ayckbourn has been called the British Neil Simon, this play demonstrates that nothing can be farther from the truth. "Nothing against Neil Simon, mind you, but it's incredibly character-based," McEleney insists. "There are no jokes whatsoever. Nobody comes out with funny one-liners. There are no zingers. It's just all character and situation."
After Curt Columbus, Trinity's artistic director, suggested that he direct a comedy, McEleney considered several possibilities but kept coming back to this play. "Lots of comedies are about very young people involved in love triangles, and this isn't a sex comedy," he says. "It's about middle-aged people struggling with middle-aged issues. So it was perfect for the company."
Examining the play more closely, he observed that it was written "very mathematically," structured very precisely.
"Looking at it on the page, you're looking at a complicated tap dance," he says. "The precision of this play is astounding. You just have to nail it, nail it, nail it, nail it, nail it, nail it. The third act is much more kind of free-form, but the first two acts are absolutely precise."
The more that he and his actors worked on it, the more he felt that Absurd Person Singular is really three separate one-act plays, "each with a different plot, each with a slightly different style, each with different rules of how they work.
"The first act seems delightful, and everybody's just missing, missing, missing, missing. Nobody can tell what anybody else is doing. In the second act it reaches a comic crescendo. And the third act reinforces that dramatically. Nobody can connect to anybody. And nobody's mean, nobody's trying to be horrible, nobody's trying to be evil, just the impossibility of actually making a connection."