I have to applaud the Denver Center Theatre Company for selecting Absurd Person Singular, Alan Ayckbourn's dark comedy, as one of its Christmas offerings. Ayckbourn's trademark is intensely clever, laugh-out-loud farce capering over the surface of a sad and penetrating cynicism, and his work is the perfect antidote to the wash of theatrical sentimentality we always encounter during the holiday season. Absurd Person Singular is the story of three couples and three consecutive Christmas cocktail parties held between 1972 and 1974. Always keen to set himself technical challenges, Ayckbourn has situated the action not in the living rooms where the parties should be taking place, but in the three kitchens. Each is furnished and appointed to reflect the status and taste of the couple in question. And in each act, a wife suffers some kind of utter meltdown.
The first kitchen belongs to Jane and Sidney Hopcroft. Jane is so obsessed with tidying, wiping, cleaning and fretting about minutiae that she's incapable of thinking about her guests. Sidney is a small-time tradesman with ambitions to climb in the world, and he's invited the people he feels will be useful to him: banker Ronald Brewster-Wright — old money, obviously — who attends with his snobbish and terminally bored wife, Marion, and bohemian architect Geoffrey, whose spouse is hyper-neurotic Eva. Jane eventually locks herself out in the rain; Ronald hints that his bank may be willing to finance Sidney; Eva pops pills and negotiates with the huge dog that she and Geoffrey have left in the car; Geoffrey makes it clear that the architectural projects he takes on are far more important and creative than the grubby little shopping center Sidney is contemplating; and Marion's sarcastic flattery of the Hopcrofts' kitchen — she finds the curtains insistent, and the white and colored buttons on the washing machine remind her of apartheid — is hilarious.
But how the mighty fall! In slow motion and through two more acts. The second is essentially a long, drawn-out suicide attempt by a close-to-catatonic Eva, who has discovered that Geoffrey intends to leave her for another woman. Her plan is constantly thwarted by the idiotic bumbling of one guest or other. This is the funniest scene in the play, but beneath the hilarity, there's a grim truth: All of these characters are too completely self-absorbed even to see each other, let alone realize that someone in their midst is in despair. Then again, everyone's marriage is in ghastly shape. The men pay no attention to the women, and while Jane appears happy to serve Sidney, Eva and Marion have complete contempt for their spouses. By the final act, Sidney Hopcroft is in the ascendant; he's literally calling the tune to which the others must dance.
Absurb Person Singular
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through December 19, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
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There's a lot here about class and money, the relentless malling and developing of England, the changing contour of social, economic and political life. Though Ayckbourn was responding to the specific tenor of the time, the play is far from dated. On the contrary, the trends it parodies are more relevant than ever. But even a terrific play like this requires that the director have a clear and precise comic vision — and for God's sake, don't stage a quintessentially English play if some of your actors can't do anything with it but caricature the ethos and mangle the speech.
Megan Byrne and Chris Mixon ham shamelessly as the Hopcrofts, though his hamming pays off a little better than hers; I rather liked the loud idiotic laugh. Byrne's accent, an apparent pastiche of every British mystery, gangster flick and/or sitcom that ever aired, is painfully distracting. It's a relief when David Ivers and Kathleen McCall come to the fore. At least Ivers's Geoffrey feels like a human being, and McCall, as Eva, shows a knack for all-out physical comedy. John Hutton is a bit subdued throughout as banker Ronald, and Jeanne Paulsen's performance is funniest when tight-lipped, condescending Marion finally unravels drunkenly and completely.
The insanely farcical moments play best in this production, because that's where director Sabin Epstein appears to have put his attention. But there's no nuance or clarity here. In fact, there's a cloth-eared aspect to the whole event; you feel as if you're trying to make out something sharp and specific through layers of muffling cotton.