19 July 2003: Ayckbourne, How the Other Half Loves

New Century Theatre, Northampton. Directed by Jack Neary

Catching up on my chronicle after a busy week — a friend of mine told me last night he had walked out on this production, saying it just wasn’t funny. I didn’t think it was that bad, but I will say I’m getting tired of Ayckbourn’s predictability. Another colleague says Ayckbourn’s plays are out of date even before they are written — a little cruel, perhaps, but on the mark. The dated quality may stem from Ayckbourn’s penchant for concocting and constructing a two-and-a-half-hour-long supposititious concept that must be articulated in a specially-constructed, contrary-to-fact stage setting. When it works, it is fresh and ingenious; but more often than not it ends up being a tiresome mechanical contrivance that misses the kind of Rube Goldberg virtuosity that Ayckbourn at his best can occasionally achieve.

In this case, the punning title signifies a play in which everything is divided, or fractured, in half: the set presents two separate domestic households, each divided in half, so that there are four alternating quarters — A|| B|| A|| B — represented. Intentionally, they overlap, and so we see two actions going on simultaneously and, in fact, two sets of characters moving through the space proper to that of the other two to communicate with an extension of their own. (Got that?) To add to the farcical complexity, there is another couple, invited guests or sometime interlopers, who from time to time intrude on each set of spaces.

I don’t have the patience to summarize the complexities of the plot; suffice it to say that Ayckbourn is using the time-tested frustrated-adultery plot of French farce to throw these characters in one another’s way, inventing enough in the way of a classically hostile world to lead them down the garden path or, in any event, astray.

What distinguishes Ayckbourn at his best is that he is sometimes able to use the conventional, familiar materials of knock-about farce — the predictable confrontation of the unwary homme moyen sensuel with the unlimited resources of a hostile material world — to open our eyes to the moral flaws of human beings (the best example, A Chorus of Disapproval, about a provincial amateur troupe mounting a production of The Beggar’s Opera). We get a bare inkling of that gesture here, in this play, when the long-suffering William Detweiler, who has expended great effort in trying to socialize his maladroit wife Mary, only to see her accused (mistakenly) of having an adulterous affair, loses his patience entirely and, acting on very bad information, accepts the slander as true and calls his mystified wife to account for it — only to be rudely awakened to the truth and find himself in the position of having to apologize to her. He cannot bring himself to articulate it, blocking on “I’m… I’m… I’m….” “That will do,” Mary says cheerfully. And as William leaves, Mary explains: “That’s the best he can do right now. You see, he’s never been wrong before.” At this point the play becomes … human, for a moment. Given the purity of the French form, as practiced by, say, Feydeau or Labiche, Ayckbourn’s venturing into social commentary here is, generically speaking, an unpardonable mannerism of style. But the play is so mechanically obtrusive that we find ourselves thirsting for a little humanizing relief, having grown tired of our own automatic laughter, and we are grateful for having arrived at this small oasis in the middle — it is actually at the end — of a hot, seemingly endless desert of manufactured joyless fun. Not a night to remember, I think.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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