DISTINCTIVE DINING Sorensen and Medina.
Considering that Alan Ayckbourn may be the most staged living English playwright besides Shakespeare, as some accounts declare, why isn't he produced more often in American theaters? His trilogy The Norman Conquests and Absurd Person Singular have been seen in Rhode Island over the years, but sightings have been rare. One reason is that most of his plays are comedies of specific English manners, droll disputations within families an ocean away from us.
There should be no such problem with 2nd Story Theatre's production of Ayckborn's Comic Potential (through February 21), since belly-laughs, with which it's packed, tend to bypass critical brain functions.
"When this play is funny, it's as funny as anything I've encountered, as funny as any Feydeau," director Ed Shea says about it, speaking in his theater. "When it is satirical, it's as biting as any Durang. And when it is profound, it's sublimely profound."
If you don't believe him, would you believe John Simon? The New York magazine critic has been frequently excoriated for being mean-spirited, as in not above making fun of physical attributes (Barbra Streisand "looks like a cross between an aardvark and an albino rat").
And yet from Simon came a review that gushed to rival 'ol Spindletop:
"If you are going to see only one play in your life, make it Comic Potential! One of the finest plays of all my theatergoing decades. A spectacular achievement!"
After Shea came across that review, he was all but sold before he even picked up the play. After he read it, it was a done deal for this season.
The story has to do with a future in which androids have replaced flesh-and-blood actors, at least on low-budget TV shows. The main characters include a frustrated, burnt-out director of a never-ending soap opera, Chance (John Michael Richardson), who used to do good work directing classic comedies. Adam (Dillon Medina), an idealistic young writer, meets him and reminds him of when he used to love his job.
An opportunity to produce a comedy he can be proud of comes up when one of the soap opera androids, JC-F31-333, starts laughing off-script. But Jacie (Laura Sorensen) isn't malfunctioning, she's developing a human sense of humor. The director and his new acolyte decide to make a comedy for her, an effort that a jealous director, Pepperbloom (Lynne Collinson), wants to sabotage by erasing Jacie's memory bank. A kidnapping is in the offing and, maybe, love.
But Ayckbourn is giving us more than just laughs, he's recapitulating human development from birth through Western culture, pausing now and then for funny set pieces. As Shea points out, "Adam — he ain't called Adam for nothin' — just before he is stabbed in the rib by a pimp, he says Jacie should learn how to read. Of course, the only book in the hotel room is the Bible. And the words that she learns to read first are 'in the beginning.' She learns to read the beginning of Genesis, things starting again."
Serious stuff for a laff riot. Shea says that for this playwright, comedy is serious. "All of his plays. I don't know whether it's a thin layer of cynicism over the substance of comedy, or whether it's a thin layer of comedy over the substance of cynicism. I don't know which one it is, but it goes back and forth in this play."