Michael Frayn has to be one of the cleverest writers alive. He's responsible for the brain-teasing profundity of Copenhagen, a play that examines the race for the atom bomb during World War II in the context of a visit by Werner Heisenberg, then working for the Germans, to his mentor, Niels Bohr. Frayn also wrote Noises Off, a brilliant, intricate farce about an ill-fated theater production, in which mishap builds on mishap until the entire universe of the play collapses and the audience is weak with laughter.
Alarms & Excursions is minor Frayn, a series of comic finger pieces, but it can't help bearing the master's stamp. A group of eight playlets examines the role of technology in our lives and its impact on human communication. In the first, a friendly dinner is interrupted by a series of sounds: an unidentifiable "chink," rings and whistles, a recurring phone message in which a disembodied voice mumbles menacing things about missing cash at the office and possible prosecution. At the same time, a complicated bottle opener baffles the host and ultimately lands one of the guests in the hospital.
In the second skit, two couples inhabit adjoining, identical hotel rooms. They hear and mis-hear each other's conversations, their misunderstandings exacerbated by the fact that one couple is working-class and the second more smoothly prosperous. The best moments come when the attempt to eliminate a mosquito in one room is interpreted as passionate lovemaking by the people in the second. "That's my blood on the ceiling," howls the mosquito-hunting wife, thumping away with her newspaper, while the middle-class pair lock eyes and shudder.
Most of the pieces in the second act are mere sketches, but several are pretty amusing. In one, an air hostess gives the usual safety instructions. Two of three seated passengers studiously ignore her, but the third listens attentively. Bit by bit, her canned spiel devolves into an ear-caressing striptease, while the listener happily gawks and gazes. In another vignette, four people attending a business function juggle plates, glasses and sheaves of paper while trying desperately to follow the speaker's instructions to read a particular passage, raise their glasses or applaud. It's pure clownery, and it's delicious. Best of all is a sendup of a Margaret Thatcherish politico in a huge garden-party hat who attempts an oration on "regionalization in the watercress industry." But she's stymied because the autocue operator -- to whom she's been autocratically rude -- has replaced her speech with his own complaints about his miserable job.
One of the short pieces, in which people attempt conversation at a noisy party, doesn't really work at all.
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It seems to me that the last playlet should have been the funniest of all, but here the cast wasn't up to snuff. This story involves a German visitor to London, missed connections, a batty Mum and a dangerous pub, with all the actors wandering the stage and desperately attempting to connect by phone.
I liked the set at Nomad, which was painted in primary colors and ingeniously constructed with swiveling pillars and beds that were pulled from solid-looking panels. Set changes were made by a tall, lithe man and a charming ponytailed woman, and it was fun to watch their slidings, manipulations and hand signals. But the changes added long minutes to an already long evening and dissipated the comic energy. And the set was perhaps too large and airy for this small, intimate show. At any rate, the evening was slow where it should have been swift. The acting was uneven, too; part of the problem may have been that director Howard Lester was also a member of the cast, so he couldn't concentrate on timing and ensemble work.
Lester is a pretty funny actor and very poised on the stage; he's better in some of his roles than in others. He's a hoot, for example, as the bemused airplane passenger, but his performance in the missed-connections scene, in which he was inexplicably dressed like a street person, was oddly off. Deborah Curtis is sturdily and consistently funny throughout, perhaps most so as the aggrieved autocue reader, Lady Armament. Karen LaMoureaux is charming, and the languor she affected for many of her roles works particularly well in the hotel romp. There is a wonderful hint of submerged malice in her comment about husbands: "I quite like it when they won't speak." Benjamin Summers is fine through much of the evening, but his yelling and exaggerated German accent did much to scuttle the connections skit, which depends on the contrast between the absurd, out-of-control, even violent situation and the impeccable German meticulousness of the guest.
This is a pleasant evening at the theater. With some tightening up, it could be a delightful one.