British master of comedy Alan Ayckbourn turns his hand to farce in the hilarious Taking Steps, onstage now in an absolutely crackerjack production at South Coast Repertory.

As always with an Ayckbourn play, there’s a gimmick. In this case, it’s that all three floors of The Pines, a historic and supposedly haunted English manor, are superimposed one upon the other at stage level.  Characters climb up and scurry down invisible staircases, one of them spiral, all the while never leaving the floor of the Segerstrom Stage.  As with the best of farces, there are plenty of entrances and exits precision-timed so that characters barely miss running into each other, but unique to Taking Steps, characters cross paths without seeing each other since each is on a different floor of the mansion. Sound confusing? Actually not at all, so clearly does Ayckbourn set up the situation and so ingenious is Ralph Funicello’s scenic design.

Before a farce can truly take flight, the audience must be introduced to the characters, so exposition takes a while here.  However once the situation has been established, Taking Step does indeed fly, up and down those invisible staircases.

First to arrive on the scene are brother and sister Mark and Elizabeth (Bill Brochtrup and Kirsten Potter). After “three and a half long months of marriage,” Elizabeth is packing her bags to leave Roland, the latest of her “idiosyncratic” choices of men, and is writing him a goodbye note, though her penmanship could be better.  (“I am a woman who needs an endless amount of …”  What word has she written?  “Feeling?” “Farming?” “Fencing?” “Ferrets?” It turns out the word she’s written is “freedom.”)  Once single again, Elizabeth plans to resume her career as a dancer, though the moves she shows off to Mark lead us to wonder if she has any actual talent for the dance.

Mark hasn’t been any luckier in love than Elizabeth, having been abandoned on his wedding day by fiancée Kitty, who left him for a Cypriot waiter. Mark’s hope now is that Roland will lend him the money to open a fishing shop, that Kitty will return, and that the two of them will be able to start anew. (One thing that might stand is Mark’s way is the curious reaction he has on people whenever he speaks; he bores them to sleep.)

A redheaded gent named Tristram Watson (Kasey Mahaffy) arrives next, a young lawyer who finds himself frequently unable to construct a comprehensible sentence.  Tristram is there to speak with Roland (Rob Nagle), who wishes to purchase The Pines.  Roland’s reason?  “Very successful men should live in very big houses.  Otherwise there’s no sense in being very successful.”

The Pines’ owner, motorcyclist Leslie Bainbridge (Louis Lotorto), soon shows up in full black leather biker regalia and eager to sell the house, followed by Kitty (Emily Eiden), who quickly falls asleep once Mark begins to tell her about his fishing shop plans. (It seems that after leaving Mark for a Cypriot waiter, ditzy Kitty got herself arrested for solicitation and set back home.)

The night turns dark and stormy (a perfect chance for Steven Cahill and Geoff Korf to show off their considerable talents as (respectively) sound and lighting designers), characters enter and exit this way and that, Kitty somehow gets shut inside the attic closet, Roland drinks scotch after scotch after reading Elizabeth’s goodbye letter, Mark’s car collides with Leslie’s Yamaha (leaving just a Yama or perhaps a Maha), and Tristram ends up in bed with the ghost. (Actually, it’s Elizabeth, who in the dark mistakes him for her husband and gives Tristram a night of passion he’ll not likely soon forget.)

Director Art Manke is a master of farce, in which timing is everything.  His prodigiously talented cast don’t miss a beat.  There is physical comedy galore, highlights including Nagle’s drunken fall smack-dab between armchair and hassock, Brochtrup and Mahaffy’s attempt at supporting him as they try to get the soused Nagle downstairs, and Nagle’s getting trapped inside a folding bed.  At one point Potter has Lotorto’s head clamped between her “dancer’s” legs, and there’s even a bottle of seltzer handy to squirt in true Marx Brothers style.

Ayckbourn knows how to milk a running gag. Here, in addition to Mark’s soporific effect on people, there’s Tristram’s belief that he keeps seeing and hearing a ghost, and Elizabeth’s insistence that, contrary to all evidence, “I’m a dancer!”

There’s not a weak link in the superbly comic cast, all of whom appear to be having the time (and workout) of their lives. It is always a treat to see Brochtrup on stage, and here he morphs delightfully into the image of British fussiness. Nagle proves himself a master of stage inebriation, and Lotorto once again disappears into a role and plays it to perfection.  Potter, a superb dramatic actress, reveals that she is equally adept at comedy (and at deliberately graceless dancing). Eiden, too, is a dandy comedienne, and manages to stay in character all the time she’s in that closet (Korf’s lighting allowing us to see how she passes the time shut up in there).  Perhaps best of all is Mahaffy.  The ingratiating leading man of Out Late creates a deliciously idiosyncratic Tristram, and gets a spontaneous round of applause for his acrobatic skill at putting his clothes back on in a jiffy.

Top marks go to Angela Balough Calin’s 1970s costumes, Funicello’s ingenious set, Korf’s lighting, David Nevell’s dialect coaching, Darin Anthony’s contributions as assistant director, and Cahill’s 1970s soundtrack, jam-packed with hit after disco hit, sending the audience home singing along to “That’s The Way I Like It” (uh huh uh huh).

Following the wow-worthy What They Have and The Injured Party, Taking Step rounds out South Coast Rep’s Spring 2008 season with a bang and proves once why SCR is Number One in the OC. South Coast promises, and consistently delivers, the best live theater has to offer.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 

–Steven Stanley
May 25, 2008
Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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