THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE Kay and Sullivan, Jr. [Photo by Mark Turek]
What a clever idea. Use the same cast and adjacent sets, and develop characters and their stories into two plays that stand alone but also offer the bonus of familiarity to audience members who see them both.
Trinity Repertory Company is staging Alan Ayckbourn’s House & Garden (through June 30) in their upstairs and downstairs theaters — simultaneously — directed by Brian McEleney. The 14 actors might get out of breath running up and down, but audiences are free to empathize with occasional breathless laughter.
In most of his more than six dozen plays, English writer Ayckbourn has loved to highlight the foibles and failures of middle-class homemakers. He doesn’t waste time getting sarcastic here: the title of the play references the magazine of the same name, which promotes such pleasant domestic pursuits as entertaining guests and messing about with petunias. The four scenes take place in the morning and afternoon, surrounding a luncheon that is the unseen occasion for the get-together. Although not all of the characters are fully developed in both plays, the order in which you see them doesn’t matter.
I saw Garden first, so let’s have that experience be your vicarious introduction. The main comical relationship here could easily have been broadened into continuous farce, but the playwright took on the challenge of leavening it with realism, so it comes across as touching as well. Joanna Mace (Angela Brazil) has been fooling around with local cad-about-town Teddy Platt (Fred Sullivan, Jr.). Early on he breaks up with her, with barely a halfhearted acknowledgment of this clingy creature’s feelings. Utterly conscience-free, at one point he asks her husband for some marital advice, and we know it’s not about his own wife. Remorse? For suckers. In a subtly hilarious demonstration of how communication and romance take place beneath the words, Teddy later succeeds in seducing a visiting French actress, Lucille Cadeau (Phyllis Kay), though only scattered words of her extensive chatter are in English.
But the centerpiece of Garden is Joanna, Teddy’s victim, and Brazil does wonders with the opportunity. From Joanna’s initial desperate reluctance to let go of her partner in adultery, through the guilty demolition of her self-image because she knows how hurt her husband would be if he knew, to her eventual devolution into a dirt-streaked, wide-eyed madwoman, Brazil is magnificent. She amplifies our laughter by keeping a well-honed edge of pain to what we find so hilarious. (Aren’t we terrible, so mean?)
Another way Ayckbourn has to magnify her regretful suffering is to make her cuckolded husband, Giles Mace (Stephen Thorne), kind and understanding — to a fault, in the buck-up-old-chap English tradition. When he learns, he does fly into a rage and storm off, but when next we see him he is talking about how hard the guilt must be on his wife. Ironically, their young son Jake (Steven Jaehnert) comes to him for advice on romancing Sally Platt (Bridget Saracino), having gotten conflicting signals from her about her interest.
A mist of pheromones sometimes obscures the action in its fog. A libidinous gardener, Warn Coucher (Barry M. Press), trudges his wheelbarrow mutely through scenes. He lives with the Platts’ housekeeper, Izzie Truce (Janice Duclos) and her daughter, Pearl (Catherine Dupont). Coarse-talking Pearl, dressed minimally to accent her attributes, has a thing for innocent Mace, but he is too proper to respond, of course. Completing this lineup of failed relationships, scurrying around setting up sideshows such as ring-toss and a fortune-telling tent are Barry and Lindy Love (Ted Moller and Mary C. Davis), as he ignores everything she says and she emits gleeps of pent-up frustration.