There’s no connection with ugly reality, nothing to challenge the status quo, just an amiable ‘sex’ comedy about characters who aren’t getting any.
Bedroom Farce by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Maria Aitken. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Boston University Theatre, Boston, MA, through December 11.
By Bill Marx
I have been writing about Boston theater long enough to anticipate, more often than not, just how the zeitgeist will dictate the way my critical brethren greet a particular production. I was right on target about the knee-jerk reaction to the Huntington Theatre Company’s sprightly production of the genially anachronistic Bedroom Farce, which premiered after the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. Our sage critics thought theatergoers deserved a laugh after the dire shock and the first comedy to come along was going to deliver it.
The Boston Globe review didn’t disappoint:
Perhaps it was just my imagination, but there seemed to be a grateful quality to the laughter of the audience at Huntington Theatre Company’s delectable production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce.
It was as if they were seizing on the chance to escape, even if only temporarily, from an attack of dread and despondency brought on by some collective waking nightmare. What that might be I cannot possibly conjecture. Has there been anything in the news lately?
The White Rhino Report was less coy:
Just as many of us have been stressing out over the Brave New World that hit us like an asteroid on November 8th, along comes the Huntington Theatre Company’s Bedroom Farce to lighten the mood. The laughter that filled the theater on Opening Night was just what the doctor ordered to relieve some tension and restore a sense of balance.
Yep, this kind of stuff is just what the doctor ordered. After all, isn’t that what the stage does so well? Theater is about taking you away from current events — it should solace, soothe, and calm. As the advertisement in the Huntington Theatre Company program for WGBH/WCRB proclaims, the arts are about helping you “make your escape.” And that is just what our theaters are eager to do, especially because there is so much unpleasantness in the news.
There’s nothing in Bedroom Farce that challenges the entertainment status quo; it is an amiable ‘sex’ comedy about characters who aren’t getting any. Ayckbourn’s early scripts are much closer to situation comedy than they are to classic farce, which can have a radical edge. The best farces are filled with characters who are being driven mad by desire. These are figures who want something so badly — love, money, sex, salvation — that they comically contort the world around them to get it. In contrast, most of the hapless figures in Bedroom Farce ache to submerge themselves in the banality of daily life — eat fish in bed, give a housewarming party, survive a bad back, inflame an old boy friend — but they are continually frustrated by the antics of a dysfunctional couple who have lost their magic in the sack.
The irony is that this 1977 comedy proffered political prescience when it first premiered at London’s National Theatre. Margaret Thatcher would become Prime Minister the next year. Ayckbourn’s plot (set in three different bedrooms) is triggered by the disruptive squabbling of Susannah and Trevor, a pair of misfits who make life hell for parents, friends, and a former lover. The playwright’s satire of the destructive power of self-absorption anticipates Thatcher’s embrace of privatization. (“And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”) Many British playwrights, David Hare and Howard Brenton among them, used comedy to condemn a culture increasingly dedicated to selfishness. As a dramatist, Ayckbourn became progressively darker and infinitely more interesting over the decades. He dug deep underneath his characters’ lack of passion and discovered an emptiness that comes after trying to live, for far too long, as a community of one.
I hope Boston’s stages will follow the British example of dissent against the abusive powers that be, though my fear is that our companies’ commitment to escapism (often of the Broadway variety) and/or catering to the politically converted will assist in normalizing the current administration. On the one hand, an assembly line of potted indictments of Trump in this Bluest of states is sure to come, attacks that will no doubt be hailed as ‘fearless’ by our ‘fearless’ critics. There’s no risk involved, so why not? On the other hand, representatives in the Trump administration are complaining that our poor too-big-to-fail banks and Wall Street have been unfairly victimized by liberals. Of course, these are the same corner-cutting moneybags who are handing mega-truckloads of mazuma over to America’s large non-profit theaters. Thus the stage is set for marketing/branding prestidigitation — stages will insist they aren’t part of an effort to normalize Trump, but the support from the richie riches will keep coming because — despite some chest-beating fuss — it will be relaxing business-as-usual. That reassuring “make your escape” makes for excellent box office. Don’t worry about what Trump is up to — take a seat and be happy.
I hope I am wrong. What the times demand is a revamping (or at least a refreshing) of our theaters’ programing. I will have some suggestions for a direction to take in an upcoming column.
Ayckbourn’s mild antics are well served by the Huntington Theatre Company production, though his understated character studies are beginning to date, like Colonel Blimp of yesteryear. Still, the performers are having a good enough time, particularly Katie Paxton as the ditsy Susannah and Malcolm Ingram’s cluelessly wooden Earnest. Director Maria Aitken acted (in the role of Susannah) in the 1977 production and she is sensitive to the script’s rhythmic ping-pong. Aitken also understands just how static these caricatures have to be — the actors set themselves into a behavioral groove and stay there, which is part of the fun. But the tight control becomes repetitive — how many times is it amusing to see Neal Nacer’s Nick do a slow burn? Ayckbourn’s machinery takes on an irritatingly toy-like regularity. So there’s some amusement here but, despite the proclamation on the HTC program, there is nothing wicked in this “wickedly funny romp.” For that, you will have to look to the villainous farce outside the walls of the theater.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.