Present enemies

Absent Friends

By Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Steven Keim
Perkasie Productions
Sanford Meisner Theatre
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

Unsurprisingly, this is an essentially English play, with essentially English characters. But the most peculiarly English -- and paradoxically the one least fitting the American English stereotype -- is Colin, a soppy, heart-on-his-sleeve extrovert oceans removed from his old friends Paul and John and their respective wives, Evelyn (Holly Hawkins) and Diana (Janice Hoffmann), and friend Marge (Mary Aufman).

Most of Act I exposes the petty cruelties behind the petty banalities of the married friends' lives. Paul (Kurt Elftmann) has arrived; he has made it in business. (The play takes place during a tea in Paul and Diana's garden, ``newly renovated with new money,'' including enough for a swimming pool, cleverly suggested by a piece of scenery and the actors.)

Paul recently screwed Evelyn (who screws anyone, in the sad hope of finding someone with enough experience as a lover who isn't too old to get it up). John, Evelyn's husband (Patrick Fitzpatrick), has no business sense and needs Paul for deals that amount to handouts. Diana hangs in as Paul's wife, as long as on the one hand she can pretend they have an open marriage while on the other no one talks too much about Paul's infidelities. Paul is a control freak who treads the fine line of physical and emotional abuse. Marge is a maternal, overweight rescuer whose own infantile, accident-prone husband is constantly sick or injured and who depends on others to give her a place in life. These suburbanites' placid roundelay through existence depends on a certain somnolent, English lack of communication -- a somnolence unfortunately shattered like a pool of mercury by Colin.

Colin (Tony Cormier) is that lesser-known English type, the ``drip.'' He could be a lay preacher who is always holding hands and asking people to pray. He touches a lot. In this case, he thinks his experience -- the epiphany brought on by the death by drowning of his fiancee -- has given him the divine right to talk constantly about how his life was changed for ever by the love of a woman.

It is a moment of delicious dramatic triumph when, after all his friends act ``sincere'' about his bereavement but try to talk about anything but his emotions, he runs out to his car, apparently overcome. The trunk slams. One of the characters suggests Colin's going to hang himself with the tow rope. Instead, in rushes Colin -- excited and happy -- with two albums and a cake-tinful of pictures of his deceased beloved, with whom he beats the others over the head for the rest of the afternoon. The resulting intimacy -- and its accidental by-product, honesty-- is just the catalyst needed to destroy their customary balance for ever (unbeknownst to oblivious Colin).

Ayckbourn has made his play with the sure strokes of the master builder. Layers of exposition fit on one another seamlessly. Director Steven Keim built the intensity to a T. His cast, with the exception of Aufman and Cormier (the lead in the one Obie-winning production, Pericles, by the esteemed Cocteau Rep), lacked one dimension that would have lifted the play to another level -- a sure sense of English dialect. For this is also a play about class, and class is expressed by dialect. This play should be a classical sextet of different voices, mostly lower-middle-class, with attempts from Paul and Diana to rise above their roots (and their friends).

Set (Telford Scenic, Selina Wintersteen) was stunning; costumes (uncredited) were subtly appropriate and complementary; lighting (uncredited) was somewhat uneven, though perhaps that can be blamed on the English weather.

Box Score:
Writing 2
Directing 1
Acting 1
Set 2
Costumes 2
Lighting/Sound 1
Copyright 1996 John Chatterton

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