The show: "Bedroom Farce" at Westport Country Playhouse.
What makes it special?: Fifth Alan Ayckbourn play produced over nine years at the theater, all staged by John Tillinger, with many returning ensemble actors.
First impressions?: The program notes that the prolific British playwright wrote "Bedroom Farce" in four days in 1975 for the National Theatre. It looks it. Although it's full of Ayckbourn's signature quirky middle class characters and a clever-conceit setting (in this comedy, four couples deal with their marriages in three bedrooms over the course of an evening), there's very little at stake — or to care about— for any of the couples, except for the deliciously English older couple, Delia and Ernest (Cecilia Hart and Paxton Whitehead).
There are some laughs — effortless in the case of Delia and Ernest, often strained with the three other couples. But you might be wondering at play's end what it was all about. Nothing of significance has changed.
What's the story?: Kate (Claire Karpen) and Malcolm (Scott Drummond) are having a housewarming party and among the guests are self-centered, childish Trevor (Carson Elrod) and his under-confident and high-strung wife, Susannah (Sarah Manton). Also on hand is Trevor's ex-girlfriend, the no-nonsense Jan (Nicole Lowrance), whose husband, Nick (Matthew Greer), is confined to bed at their home with excruciating back pain.
And Delia and Ernest?: They have nothing to do with the party but they are Trevor's parents and Susannah pops in at their place in the second half of the play.
When Susannah catches Trevor kissing Jan, she has an emotional meltdown, and the party comes to a crashing end. Then Trevor heads to Jan's house to explain things to laid-back, laid-up Nick, and Susannah heads to her in-laws for comfort and council.
And Malcolm and Kate?: There's little character to play with other than being given silly bits of business involving hiding kitchen utensils in their bed and attempting to assemble an IKEA-like table in the middle of the night. Handsome, studly Drummond is miscast as the ineffectual man of his house and Karpen is in search of a character that just isn't on the page.
Meanwhile, Greer is stuck finding as many variations of being in agony, only coming up with a few. His big solo scene in trying to get a fallen book from his bed is marred by poor sight lines and lots of bed blanketing that obscures all his painful efforts. Lowrance starts with a solid handle on her bored-wife character but has little help after that with the script, except lots of entrances and exits about washing her hair.
But the play was a big Brit hit, and also did well on Broadway, too, in the '70s: Indeed. I suppose that it's all in the playing and staging and if you do it just right, you won't mind the thinness of plot or characters.
The production here, under Tillinger's usually spot-on staging, only does it sporadically. Elrod is a wonderfully inventive comic actor and has some funny and idiosyncratic moments as the petulant, aging, mod-rocker Trevor. (Laurie Churba nails the costume and character here). But his younger colleagues on stage struggle with their characters and purpose and so consistently overcompensate.
Hart and Whitehead, however, are a comic wonder together. Just watch Whitehead get into a cold bed, or react when his wife brushes crumbs off his lap, or do the subtlest of nonplussed takes when he has to give up his bed to his daughter-in-law. This is a master of underplaying at work. Hart, whose fluty voice and calm-at-all-costs manner reminds me of Billie Burke, also terrifically amusing and utterly charming in a daft English way. Their scenes together alone would have worked as a charming one-act play.
Who will like it?: Some Ayckbourn fans.
Who won't like it?: Other Ayckbourn fans (myself included).
For the kids?: This is definitely one for the parents who might have a fondness for domestic slapstick of the silly Brit sort.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less?: Forced farce of the most inconsequential sort, though veteran actors splendid.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: It's nice to see the lovely restaurant on the playhouse property reopened. Actor-philanthropist Paul Newman co-created the Dressing Room Restaurant in 2006, several years after the playhouse was transformed into a year-round theater, led by his wife, Joanne Woodward. Newman died in 2008 and the restaurant closed in February 2014. The new restaurant looks very inviting with an appealing menu, and it was hopping last weekend.
The basics: The show at the 25 Powers Court theater in Westport continues through Sept. 13. The play runs two hours, including one intermission. Information at westportplayhouse.org.