After twenty minutes or so of watching Relatively Speaking, I stopped taking notes and began laughing. Out loud and several times. This may not seem particularly significant, but consider the fact that as a critic, I go to the theater far more often than normal mortals do -- which means I frequently find myself stone-faced while others are howling with mirth, dry-eyed as an entire audience reaches for Kleenex, and firmly seated when everyone else in the place is on his or her feet, clapping madly. Even more significant, my very literary and critical companion, who usually mutters "That was awful" or some variation thereof upon leaving the theater, was laughing too. And so was everyone else.
At Germinal Stage, Alan Ayckbourn's clever, satisfying and well-crafted script meets Ed Baierlein's humorous and carefully paced production. The result is a grand good time for the audience.
The play begins in the flat of a young woman, Ginny (Emily Paton Davies), who's been dating Greg (Jim Miller) for a few weeks. Ginny is about to visit her parents in the country; Greg would like to come, too, but she won't allow it. Eventually, he finds the address, and in a Bertie Woosterish, what-ho, Jeeves sort of moment, decides to visit independently. But hints abound that Ginny may not be everything he thinks she is -- hang-up phone calls, myriad bunches of flowers, heart-shaped boxes of chocolate and a pair of man's slippers under the bed. Her explanations get sillier by the moment. The slippers belonged to a onetime roommate's dog, she explains, inspiring Greg to wild flights of speculation about just how the pup might have worn them.
By the second act, we're at the bucolic country home of a childless middle-aged couple, Philip and Sheila. They seem so, well, English. Kindly, boring, puttering people. He tends his vegetable garden; she apologizes for not having bought marmalade: "They didn't have our sort." Greg erupts into their garden, and sometime later, so does Ginny. There's a series of identity mixups, during which we figure out who this second couple is, and a semi-happy resolution with a bit of a sting in its tail.
Relatively Speaking isn't a farce, though it contains farcical elements; it's witty, but as dependent on character as on wordplay. Nor is the script sweet or sentimental in a Neil Simonish way, because Ayckbourn's worldview is more cynical than Simon's. What Philip and Sheila feel for each other isn't affection, or even the mutual acceptance of a couple of codgers who've been rubbing along together for decades, but a faint dislike. Any pleasure they take in each other is perverse: It seems to amuse him, slightly, to cheat on her; it amuses her -- a little -- to trip him up. And Ginny and Greg are heading down a similar path.
Greg is the only innocent in this group, and Jim Miller plays him with a certain thick-skinned, grinning, unaware charm. Miller has a gift for physical comedy, and the play's opening moments are among the evening's funniest. Emily Paton Davies is a smoothly convincing Ginny. I think Sallie Diamond could have been a little less presentational and more naturalistic as Sheila without sacrificing any of the role's humor. However, her ditsy, woolly-brained conventionality was a hoot, as were her fluting voice and impeccably timed slow comic takes. Watching Ed Baierlein as Philip is a little like seeing an elephant riding a tricycle. Philip is gruff, self-righteous and as conventional as his wife, and he always seems to be tiptoeing across a minefield comprised of his own lies, ambivalences and evasions. As played by Baierlein, he's perpetually baffled. Mildly baffled, struck-dumb baffled, oh-my-God-I've-just-realized-what-this-means baffled, or raging in furious, impotent bafflement. And underneath it all, there's a mild undercurrent -- just a shiver -- of genuine nastiness.
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