South Coast Repertory opens its 2012-2013 season with a 40th Anniversary revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular, a terrifically directed and performed production which spotlights what Orange County’s premier regional theater and the “British Neil Simon” do best.

 Let’s start with Ayckbourn, who wrote Absurd Person Singular (his 12th of a now 76 full-length plays) as a young man of 32.

As noted in previous reviews, Sir Alan is the master of “the gimmick,” as in The Norman Conquests, whose gimmick is that this “Norman Trilogy” is in actuality three complete plays all taking place over the same weekend with the same cast of characters, each happening in a different part of the same house. Then there’s Bedroom Farce, which unfolds in three separate bedrooms during a single night and the following morning. Ackbourne’s Taking Steps superimposes all three floors of a three-story house onto a one-level set. How the Other Half Loves situates action taking place in two neighboring homes on the same set at the same time! And 2010’s Life Of Riley, his most recent to be staged in Southern California, unfolds in four gardens, each occupying one quarter of an arena stage.

 Absurd Person Singular could just as easily have been titled Kitchen Farce, since like Bedroom Farce, each of its acts takes place in a different kitchen, this time over the course of three successive Christmas Eves. In common with The Norman Conquests is that its first act gives us a sort of backstage back story of the “action” unfolding at a Christmas Eve party being held in the never seen living room, though where the “Norman Trilogy” showed us that unseen action at some point in one of the other two plays, here we only imagine the supposed living room hilarity.

  But I digress. At heart, Absurd Person Singular is the story of three very different married couples, and how their lives intersect and evolve over the course of two years and three Christmas Eves.

The first couple (and kitchen owners) are up-and-coming contractor Sidney Hopcroft (JD Cullum) and his neatnik wife Jane (Kathleen Early), who’ve invited guests over for Christmas Eve in Sidney’s hope of climbing the social ladder by courting favor with a trio of more successful businessmen.

 The second couple, whose kitchen we visit in Act Two, is made up of womanizer Geoffrey Jackson (Alan Smyth) and his long-suffering wife Eva (Tessa Auberjonois), who responds to Geoff’s desire to leave her for his latest conquest with a series of inadvertently thwarted suicide attempts.

Finally, we spend a third Christmas Eve with banker Ronald Brewster-Wright (Robert Curtis Brown) and his by now alcoholic wife Marion (Colette Kilroy), a couple whose fortunes have made a one hundred eighty degree turn over the course of Christmas Eves Past, Present, and Future.

There is a fourth couple in Absurd Person Singular, and in a tradition upheld in Life Of Riley (in which we hear about but never see the title character), the raucously jovial Dick and Lottie Porter remain offstage in Act One and only just referred to in Acts Two and Three, and the same holds true for the Hopcrofts’ pet pooch George, at least during Acts One and Two.

Like Neil Simon, with whom Ayckbourn is frequently compared, the even more prolific Sir Alan writes some of the funniest plays you’re likely to see revived…and revived again. But also like our own “Sir Neil,” or at least the Neil Simon who began revealing his darker side with The Gingerbread Lady, there’s an often serious tone to Ayckbourne’s work that coexists side by side with the laughter.

 Take for instance Eva, who having been driven to despair by a philandering mate who’s announced his intention of moving out, spends all of Act Two in a series of suicide attempts, first by gas, then by pills, and finally by hanging. Hardly the stuff of comedy, yet the second act is arguably Absurd Person Singular’s funniest, though not because light is being made of Eva’s depressed state. It’s simply that none of the folks around her have even the slightest clue about what she’s up to, mistaking each of her suicide attempts as yet another household chore. Jane, for example, responds to seeing Eva’s head in the oven by taking it upon herself to clean it “the right way.” That Ayckbourn has Eva utter not a single word throughout the act is yet another stroke of Sir Alan’s genius, and allows the powerhouse that is Auberjonois to steal an entire act without a single peep.

Marion’s rapidly accelerating alcoholism is serious stuff as well, but it is not Conroy’s tour de force acting that gets Act Three’s abundance of laughs, but the other characters’ reaction to it, from her oblivious spouse to the even more clueless Sidney and Jane, who arrive bearing Christmas gifts, of which Marion’s just happens to be … “a lovely bottle of gin!”

Director David Emmes proves himself as adept at directing Ayckbourn as he was at staging Richard Greenberg’s Three Days Of Rain and Donald Margulies’ Sight Unseen, SCR productions which won him a pair of Scenies these past two years. Emmes understands that for Absurd Person Singular to get the laughs Sir Alan is famous for, it must not be played for them, and therefore keeps all six performers grounded in reality, even as the situations they find themselves in and the ways they react to them and to each other move us to almost nonstop laughter.

 Cullum’s exuberant go-getter of a Sidney, Early’s good-natured but not terribly bright Jane, Brown’s wryly acerbic Ronald, Kilroy’s increasingly eccentric Marion, Smyth’s brashly arrogant Geoffrey, and Auberjonois’s resolutely suicidal but not yet hopeless Eva are all absolute gems, with special snaps to Early’s rain-soaked bedragglement and Brown’s fortunately non-fatal bout with electrocution, just two examples of the inspired physical comedy Emmes and company provide.

Among Absurd Person Singular’s crackerjack team of designers, scenic design whiz Sara Ryung Clement’s three very distinct, beautifully conceived, and meticulously executed kitchens are this production’s standout, the Segerstrom Stage’s revolving set allowing for three night-and-day different kitchens to materialize with the push of an offstage button. Costume designer Nephelie Andonyadis gives each actor three character-defining and period-perfect ‘70s outfits, with special snaps to whoever designed the ladies’ wigs, one for each act. (Gieselle Blair is billed as wig and makeup technician). Thumbs up go too to Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s expert lighting design and Sam Lerner’s equally splendid sound design with its offstage guffaws and barks and falling rain.

Jackie S. Hill is production manager and Jamie A. Tucker stage manager. Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA, who thanks to South Coast Rep has once again given Southern California-based actors the major regional roles they deserve. John Glore is dramaturg, Kathryn Davies assistant stage manager, and Andrea Caban dialect coach. Dance consultant Kelly Todd merits kudos for Act Three’s hilarious “party game” sequence.

Prolific as Alan Ayckbourn is, only perhaps half a dozen or so of his seventy-six plays get frequently revived. Absurd Person Singular quite definitely deserves to be part of that elite group of comedies, as South Coast Rep’s pitch-perfect 40th Anniversary Edition makes abundantly clear.

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

–Steven Stanley
September 18, 2012
Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

Comments are closed.