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Absurd Person Singular, at MTC's Biltmore Theatre

We saw a marvelous show last week, on the night before Thanksgiving - that's why I haven't got to it sooner. It was Alan Ayckbourn's umpteenth play, Absurd Person Singluar. This was the sixth or seventh Ayckbourn that we've seen; it was by far the best. And for once, I have to begin by praising the director, John Tillinger.

Alan Ayckbourn is a master farceur. He knows more about doorways that the god Janus. He moves his characters - and their stories - with the precision of a clockmaker. He has a fantastic natural sense of humor. The problem comes in when he tries to be serious, to make a point. He does make a point in Absurd Person Singular: it is the point of the title. We're all absurd when all we think about is ourselves, as the six people in this play do. (The humor of "Absurd" is that, while it rhymes with "third," it refers to the first.) This is not a show that even an Olivier could muddle through without strong direction; the roles require exact synchronization. Mr Tillinger has directed lots of plays at MTC, including several by Mr Ayckbourn, but never has his choreography worked to such magnificent extent - a fact that I attribute to Mr Ayckbourn's staying out of the way. John Lee Beatty's amusing sets, Jane Greenwood's spot-on outfits, and Brian MacDevitt's superb lighting showed off the play's full comic potential.

The construction of Absurd Person Singular is elegance itself. Three couples, three kitchens, three Christmas Eves (last year, this year, next year). In that space of two years, the couple at the lower end of the totem pole will rise to the top, but the rising will happen offstage, allowing us to be entertained by its reflection. The couple in the middle will fall apart but get back together again, while the couple starting out at the top will show itself never to have been much of a couple in the first place.

The English class structure is so completely assumed that Mr Ayckbourn can dispense with the casual cruelties that usually give it away and head straight for absurdity. As, for example, in the first act, when Marion, the banker's wife - hilariously embodied by one of my all-time favorite actresses, Deborah Rush - sails into the bourgeois kitchen of two of her husband's prospective clients and goes on and on about its marvelous cabinets. She's thrilled! by all the doors that open and close so easily. It is too wacky to be rude, and neither Sidney (Alan Ruck) nor Jane (Clea Lewis) is offended. They're only too happy to keep Marion's glass of gin full. Another sign that all is not right at the top of the heap is given when Ronald, the banker (Paxton Whitehead), realizes that the booklet he's been trying to make out is the instruction manual for Jane's new washing machine. That Ronald and Marion have inherited their position in life never needs to be spelled out. They could never have gotten where they are in any other way.

The couple in the middle, Eva (Mireille Enos) and Geoffrey (Sam Robards), clearly come from nice famillies, but, sadly, must work for a living. At least Geoffrey must. Geoffrey is an architect who's determined to feature domes in his shopping malls; his career comes a cropper when one collapses on the developer. Eva is a drug-addled gal with serious self-esteem deficits. She spends the entire second act, even though it takes place in her kitchen, in silence, as first Jane and Sidney and then Ronald and Marion either clean up or make messes all around her. When Eva moves, it's to put herself in a suicidal position, and its in her second-act part that Mr Ayckbourn's taste for farce predominates. Eva tries to throw herself out the window, to gas herself in the oven, to hang herself from a light fixture, and even to run upon a fixed chef's knife (a rather Roman touch, I thought). When she was not in motion, the fantastic Ms Enos, last scene as Honey in the recent revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, clutched a notebook to her chest and stared open-mouthed at the audience, as if she were a victim of the Medusa. I don't know how she did it, but it was grand. As Geoffrey, Mr Robards was convincingly caddish, but his character was too withdrawn to engage in the others' antics, so it was fun to watch his suffering in the game of forfeits that Sidney forces everyone to play at the end of the third act.

By this time, Sidney has come along way from the anxious, lower middle-class entrepreneur of the first act. There, his bid for success - a poorly organized cocktail party for the nabobs - seems bound to doom him. He clearly has no idea what it takes to impress the other couples, or even how hopeless his attempt is doomed to be. But the play implicitly stands for the proposition that it is not necessary to impress your way to success if you have a good head for business and an iron determination. Sidney is not the nastiest fellow you'll meet, but his focus and shortness of vision make the atmosphere around him claustrophobic. Mr Ruck did great things with his unflattering role, and clearly enjoyed exacting quiet revenge at the end. As Jane, newcomer Clea Lewis made an indelible impression with her brainless little laughs (not giggles, quite) and her ability to clean an over (not her own) in a form-fitting party dress. A good little girl who feels safest when she is cleaning something, Jane hurls herself into seeing the bright side of things, but when the going gets really rough, she sucks her thumb.

There was a moment of confusion in Act II, when Ronald and Sidney were trying to fix a broken lamp, circling about the rigid Eva while their wives crawled on the floor in search of a dropped bit of hardware, that hit me as a sort of High Mass of comedy. It was delirious, thought-free fun. And among the many funny lines, the one I remember best is Eva's, when she's ticking off Geoffrey's faults as a boss (she works for him now, partly as therapy, perhaps, and partly because he couldn't afford a real employee): "You show up hours late, even when I drive you to the office." Deborah Rush's leaps for joy whenever Marion "won" a shot of gin at forfeits won't fade from memory anytime soon. (November 2005)

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