Novelist and playwright Michael Frayn is equally adept at comedy — his Noises Off may be the funniest and most intricately structured farce of the twentieth century — and high-minded, contemplative drama. In Copenhagen, for example, he has the ghosts of physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg reminiscing about a meeting the two men actually had in 1941, a meeting historians have never been able to understand or explain. In a dazzling display of intellect and soul, the scientists, along with Bohr's wife Margrethe, discuss science, human nature, guilt and mutability, the ethics of the bomb and the mixed motivations behind their own wartime actions.
The Two of Us, a group of four short plays, is Frayn's earliest theatrical work. Its genesis came in 1970, when he submitted the first play, Black & Silver, for an evening of one-acts to be produced in London. He was rejected, and decided to write three more pieces and create his own evening. The results are uneven — flashes of brilliance, stretches of boredom and moments of sheer exhilaration — but you can see in this skilled Miners Alley production the techniques and ideas that will inform Frayn's mature work.
Black & Silver is pleasant but slight. It concerns a couple (Missy Moore and Mike Martinkus) trying to recapture the magic of their Venice honeymoon three years later — only now they have their squalling baby in tow. They try to sleep. The baby wakes and cries. They mutter and argue, rock the cradle and change the diaper. There's a lot of stumbling about in the half-dark and some profoundly unfunny tumbling over chairs.
The second play, The New Quixote, is wonderful, however. A young man shows up at the home of an older woman he met at a party the night before and with whom he had sex. He's determined to move in; she's puzzled, irritated, anxious to get rid of him. But by the time he's through weaving verbal nets of crazy connections and bits of popular science, and expounding on his bizarre philosophy — in which people not only say the opposite of what they mean, but actually feel the opposite of what they think they feel — she's getting a bit swoony. Leslie Randle Chapman plays the woman as a pert, matter-of-fact little squirrel, and Zachary Andrews is so full of bounding, radiant energy as the guy that you can't help hoping she'll fall.
These two actors return for the third playlet, Mr. Foot, about a man who expresses himself almost entirely through that jiggling appendage, and they're equally good here. The man's exasperated wife carries on a monologue with an imaginary person, gets drunk on imaginary booze, and uses a sock puppet to represent her carping husband. The whole thing feels like a Thurber cartoon (when it isn't irresistibly reminiscent of Pinter), and it's hilarious.
The intellect that created Noises Off and loves setting traps and puzzles for itself is very evident in the final offering, Peas in a Pod. The play is set in a dining room, where a couple is preparing for a dinner party — but a lot of the action actually takes place off stage. The two discover that they have a problem: She has invited a friend who left her husband for a younger, multiply pierced and much-tattooed boyfriend. He has invited the husband. The action consists of the hosts frantically attempting to keep the guests apart. Since the husband has already commented that their friends are all alike and he can never keep their names straight, it's no surprise that Moore and Martinkus gamely play not only the hosts, but all the other roles as well — though sometimes the guests are represented only by waving hands and muffled voices. The play is ingenious, with doors continually opening and closing and lots of running back and forth, but ultimately, it's far too long.
Still, if this play and one other are slightly damp squibs, they're more than offset by the two that sparkle.