In the musical theater classic Gypsy, strippers Mazeppa, Electra, and Tessie Tura sing, “You gotta have a gimmick if you wanna get ahead.” No playwright would seem to have taken this advice more seriously than prolific British comedy scribe Alan Ayckbourn, whose hit plays almost always have a gimmick.

The Norman Conquests comprises three plays, all taking place over the same weekend with the same cast of characters, each happening in a different part of the same house. Amazingly, each can be enjoyed as a complete play without the audience feeling that something is “missing.”  Bedroom Farce takes place entirely in three bedrooms during one night and the following morning. Taking Steps superimposes all three floors of a three-story house onto a one-level set. 

How the Other Half Loves, now playing at Long Beach’s International City Theatre, features one of the playwright’s cleverest gimmicks.  Action in two neighboring homes occurs simultaneously on the same set! The audience is clued into this from the very first scene, when a character in one of the houses telephones the other house, and both characters talk to each other side by side, though clearly not in the same room. In the second half of Act One, Ayckbourn goes one step further, and plays with time as well as space. What’s happening in one of the homes is actually taking place a day later than what’s happening in the other!  

Cleverness alone is not enough to have made How the Other Half Loves—and other Ayckbourn plays—such worldwide hits. They are also invariably funny, often hilariously funny, and that, combined with their ingenious gimmicks, is very good reason to rush to any theater presenting an Ayckbourn comedy—at this moment, ICT in Long Beach. 

Neighbors Fiona (DeeDee Rescher) and Bob (Adam J. Smith) are having an adulterous affair. To explain to their respective spouses, Frank (Gregory North) and Teresa (Jodi Fleisher), why they were both out till all hours the night before, each claims to have been comforting an acquaintance who believes that his or her spouse is cheating on him (or her). The trouble is, the two supposedly cheating spouses happen to be husband and wife, a pair so prim and proper that it’s hard to imagine either one even thinking of having an affair.  When the couple (James May and Erin Anne Williams as Bob and Mary Detweiler) accept invitations to dine at Frank and Fiona’s on Thursday and at Bob and Teresa’s on Friday, complications ensue—hilariously—in the aforementioned Act One Scene Two, which takes place simultaneously on both Thursday and Friday nights.

With comedic master Todd Nielsen directing How The Other Half Loves, ICT patrons are assured ingenious staging (especially given this play’s setup) and performances sparked by razor-sharp timing.

Rescher is such an all-American actress that it comes as a delightful surprise to hear her signature husky voice in “veddy veddy propah” (and spot-on) British mode.  She’s an absolute delight as Fiona, and is matched by the excellent North, as her very fuddy-duddy mate. Smith and Fleisher (both terrific) perform their roles with energy and panache, qualities de rigueur in an Ayckbourn farce. The delightful May and Williams possibly have the most fun of all as the polite, introverted victims of Fiona’s and Bob’s lies.

The production’s most memorable scene, the one in which Ayckbourn plays with both space and time, works to perfection, thanks to Nielsen’s direction and the work of his six actors, all at the same table (or rather two crisscrossing tables) on different nights. It’s especially fun to watch May and Williams swiveling on a dime from the steadily escalating drunken chaos of Thursday’s dinner to the consistently proper good manners they display at Friday’s soiree.

Set designer Stephen Gifford once again proves himself the perfect scenic architect for ICT’s thrust stage, creating two overlapping decors, the Fosters’ in elegant shades of pink and the Phillips’ in tackier reds, oranges, and greens, aided and abetted by resident property designers Patty and Gordon Briles.  Chris Kittrell is the only theater artist I’m familiar with who combines lighting and sound design, and he does both beautifully here, as he did in ICT’s Frankie And Johnny In The Clair De Lune. There’s a particularly impressive lighting effect at the play’s very beginning, as Fiona and Teresa stand upstage and mime the opening of shutters, casting on the floor behind them precisely the same light and shadows that real shutters would cast. Kittrell also subtly varies the lighting according to whether we are in the Fosters’ living room or the Phillips’.  The designer’s choice of between-scene music is particularly clever, beginning with Doris Day’s “Secret Love.” Kim DeShazo’s costumes are a perfect match with the character’s personalities, Gifford’s color schemes, and the play’s 1971 setting. Pat Loeb is production stage manager.

I try never to miss either an Ayckbourn farce or an ICT production or anything directed by Todd Nielsen.  When the three intersect, as in How The Other Half Loves, I know I will be treated to an evening of laughter and fun. My advice to you: Sit back, relax, and enjoy the mayhem.

International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
April 30, 2010
                                                                                 Photos: Shashin Desai

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