With over seventy plays under his belt, Alan Ayckbourn is one of the most prolific (and successful) playwrights ever.  He’s also one of the funniest and most original.  It’s said that each of his plays has a gimmick. The Norman Conquests trilogy are three separate plays, each with the same set of characters, each taking place on the same weekend, each in a different part of a English country home.  Amazingly, each play tells a complete story and can be seen in any order without the need to see either of the others.  How The Other Half Loves superimposes two neighboring houses on the same set, so that characters standing within touching distance are often in two completely different locations. Taking Steps, currently at the Odyssey Theater, has a somewhat similar conceit.  It places all three stories of a London home (“The Pines”) at the same stage level with a pair of staircases (one of them spiral) on which actors “ascend” or “descend” without ever moving up or down even an inch.  With characters slamming doors and barely missing running into each other, this British farce is amusing indeed.

As Act 1 begins, brother and sister Mark and Elizabeth (Andy Hoff and Melanie Lora) are the first to arrive. 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 nerdish blond gent named Tristram Watson (Jonathan Runyon) arrives next, a young lawyer who finds himself frequently unable to construct a comprehensible sentence. Tristram is there to speak with Roland (Marty Ryan), 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 (Bernard White), soon shows up in full black leather biker regalia and eager to sell the house, followed by Kitty (Kate Rylie), 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 storm, 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.)

Though the Odyssey production lacks the brilliant slapstick moments that made South Coast Repertory’s revival last spring one of the very best comedy productions of 2008, the direction by Allan Miller and Ron Sossi produces entirely enjoyable results. One wishes that the pair had mined the comic possibilities in Roland’s inebriation, the ostensibly simple act of one of the characters putting his street clothes back on, or a pair of characters helping a drunken one down a flight of stairs.  Still, this is a very funny production with a sextet of very funny performances.

Lora is a hoot as Elizabeth, the self-proclaimed “dancer,” especially when she ministers to her intoxicated husband all the while doing her version of balletic (or should that be interpretive?) dance moves. Hoff makes for a humorous and sympathetic (albeit so-dull-that-he-puts-everyone-to-sleep) Mark.  Runyon, an actor who can command your attention merely by sitting alone on a living room sofa, is simply adorable as Tristram. Ryan amusingly recalls the late character actor John McGiver as the fussy Roland.  As Kitty, Rylie milks every comic possibility of a character trapped inside a tiny closet. British accents, while not all perfect, are respectable enough not to detract from the performances.

Nadia Morgan’s ingenious set design makes it absolutely clear which floor a character is on at any given time as does Adam Blumenthal’s particularly effective lighting design. Katharine Tarkulich’s costumes are well chosen to fit each character’s personality.  The sound design (lots of impeccably timed effects) is strangely uncredited in the program.

The Odyssey has a long history of presenting Ayckbourn’s comedies and this production of Taking Steps, while not the laugh riot that South Coast Rep’s production proved it can be, is nonetheless a thoroughly enjoyable way of passing a couple of hours and fun entertainment for anyone seeking comic relief from the stress of 21st Century daily life.

Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. 

–Steven Stanley
February 6, 2009

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