Until I saw The Actors Company Theatre’s production of Bedroom Farce, I had never seen a staging of any play by Alan Ayckbourn. Such a statement is probably the reason why TACT decided to stage one of Ayckbourn’s greatest plays, Bedroom Farce. Despite the fact that he is one of the greatest living British playwrights, Ayckbourn’s work is almost never staged in the U.S. You can probably count the number of people in America deeply familiar with Ayckbourn’s work on a few sets of hands, and most of those fingers would represent British ex-pats. Watching Bedroom Farce, a classic, smart British comedy with an equally smart production, I was thrilled to have the privilege of finally seeing Ayckbourn. I also wondered whether any attempt to make Ayckbourn a bigger name in the States could possibly be successful.
Ayckbourn, still going strong at the age of 69, has often been called the British Neil Simon. A better parallel would be to call him this generation’s Noël Coward. Bedroom Farce is more akin to a postwar Private Lives, a funny, endearing examination of marital struggle that takes a simple structure and injects it with enough wit and genuine human emotion for it to reach a higher level than standard mainstream theater.
Each of the four couples in Bedroom Farce has its own crosses to bear, and each character displays alternating degrees of repression and emotional violence. Exploring the dynamics of repression and unleashed emotion was a Coward staple, but Ayckbourn’s particular innovation was to have the degree of these personality types differ within each character based on each situation. Ayckbourn is one of the best living playwrights exploring the inconsistencies in individual behavior, often mistaken for hypocrisy. The result in the case of Bedroom Farce is the kind of social comedy that, while still lighthearted and rather silly, reaches a higher plane of real human emotions that most so-called farces miss.
It’s understandable how frustrated Ayckbourn fans must be to see his plays staged in the U.S. so rarely. Thankfully, TACT’s production of Bedroom Farce, under the helm of director Jenn Thompson, doesn’t miss a beat. Set designer Robin Vest masters a vintage Ayckbourn dramatic space consisting of three beds for four couples on various planes of the stage. Every cast member seems in tune with his role, and no one in the cast or crew holds the show back in the slightest. If the goal was to give Ayckbourn a staging that fully showed off his talents to an American audience, TACT has succeeded tremendously.
The main problem with the production, which is of no fault of TACT, is that the play simply did not resonate with the audience at Theater Row the same way it must have at its original West End staging in 1977. The sarcasm of Scott Schafer’s hobbled, middle-aged Nick got the most laughs, and coming in close second was the Mark Rylance-like buffoonery of Mark Alhadeff’s Trevor. But the real emotional and comedic centers of the play, Trevor’s mother Delia (Cynthia Harris) and his wife Suzannah (Eve Bianco, who may have given the best performance of all), seemed more like peculiarities to an audience expecting a full-on farce.
While I loved the play tremendously, I could immediately see the reasons why Ayckbourn hasn’t become a larger star in America. All the intelligence, all the emotional tugs, and all the deeper intellectual themes that could stay with an audience beyond the theater are hidden in Ayckbourn’s deeper, subtle wryness. This wryness requires thinking in more general terms, and is a cultural trademark of Britain. Yet it doesn’t resonate at quite the same level with brasher Americans. The result is an audience with a prevalence of smiles, but a lack of laughs at what is supposed to be a very funny play. Perhaps Americans have a much harder time mixing comedy and flat-out farce than the Brits. There’s no need to blame Ayckbourn for the cultural disparity that has held back his American success, but then again, there’s no need to blame Americans for that either.
Bedroom Farce by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Jenn Thompson; scenic design by Robin Vest; costume design by Martha Hally; lighting design by Aaron Copp; sound design by Stephen Kunken. Photos by Kunken.
Starring Larry Keith (Ernest), Cynthia Harris (Delia), Scott Schafer (Nick), Margaret Nichols (Jan), Sean Dougherty (Malcolm), Ashley West (Kate), Mark Alhadeff (Trevor), and Eve Bianco (Susannah).
Produced by The Actors Company Theatre at the Beckett @ Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd st. Runs through November 8th. Tickets can be purchased at Ticket Central.