Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular is a comedy of total narcissism—belly-laugh jokes accompanied by a cold cruelty.
Absurd Person Singular by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Gus Kaikkonen. Staged by the Peterborough Players, Peterborough, New Hampshire, through September 1.
By Jim Kates
One of the pleasures of reviewing not just a theatrical show but a whole season is the ability to follow, if the artistic director of a company has taken the trouble, as one production builds and comments on another. The Peterborough Players under the general direction of Gus Kaikkonen this summer have constructed a season of comedy, and readers of these pages will have already seen how a solo performance recreating George Burns was followed by a bittersweet duet of musical performers. Then Chekhov’s Seagull took off into one kind of ambiguous comedy, and Charles Morey’s Laughing Stock stepped from there into an exploration of the farce of theater itself. And now Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular picks up from the self-absorption of The Seagull and gives us a comedy of total narcissism—with belly-laugh jokes but a cold cruelty that can’t help reminding us, in retrospect, of Chekhov’s warmth.
Sir Alan Ayckbourn has been a most prolific playwright, a popular one in his native England and here. The Peterborough Players production of his 1972 comedy Absurd Person Singular is one of two in New England this summer, the other playing at Central Square in Cambridge, MA. For all its fun, the play comprises three acts of increasing brutality, more and more presided over by an unprepossessing (he is so described in the play) lord of misrule. Think of Edward Albee without depth. Think of three couples, each from a slightly different different economic class. Think of three kitchens (wonderfully delineated by Charles Morgan). Think of three Christmas Eve cocktail parties (sort of) one act at a time.
We are introduced in the first act to Sidney and Jane Hopcroft and their social-climbing anxieties, whereby Sidney’s callousness is directed mostly against his wife. The indefatigable Kraig Swartz begins deploying his plaintive insistence and rectangular smile here, and these will turn unintentionally and bumblingly sinister by act three. Kate Hampton can wring more from a simple “oh” (or is it “ow” or is it “aow”?) than almost anyone else I know. And boy, can she squeal fortissimo as she compulsively cleans her kitchen and tries to help her husband along.
The second act belongs to the Jacksons, the philandering Geoffrey and suicidal Eva. It is this act that feels the most uneasy, as we laugh harder and longer at Eva’s anguish. Our appreciation of both the fun and the anguish derives partly from Susan Riley Stevens’s pitch-perfect, wordless performance. Jack Koenig has less to do as Geoffrey, but he projects the necessary sleaze for her to bounce off of. He embodies all the misunderstandings that drive the play, the “I know just that feeling” that means I don’t know you at all. As the act goes on, the Hopcrofts take over here, too.
And then the last act brings us into the posh kitchen of the Brewster-Wrights, whom we had met first being condescendingly polite in the Hopcrofts’ home. Lisa Bostnar delivers an astounding drunken aria as Marion Brewster-Wright and then—she pulls this off—quite literally rolls around on the floor. Here, too, the husband is more of a foil than his own person. And while Greg Wood comes through as Ronald Brewster-Wright the banker, I’d have expected him to be stuffier than Wood plays him. The final escalating mayhem that the Hopcrofts bring down on this household ends, as all the old Shakespearian comedies did, in a dance.
Absurd Person Singular gets billed as a “situation” comedy. A “situation” isn’t quite a plot, but it does signal that the emphasis here is not on characters or characterization but on what is going on. (The contrast here with The Seagull is worth thinking about. If there’s one real problem with Ayckbourn’s play, it’s that none of the six people in it is particularly likable. This may be what keeps us laughing at the nastiest bits—we don’t care about the people themselves—but it does leave a hole. The one person we might have some sympathy for, Eva Jackson, undergoes a strange and unaccountable transition between the second and third acts that reminds us how much we are being manipulated to disregard the possible personhood of the characters.
Do I make it sound dark? Too dark? It’s not. Credit Ayckbourn’s writing, credit Kaikkonen’s able direction, credit the exuberance and skill of the actors, but even as chills run up and down our spine, we keep laughing right through to the bitter end.