Tough Love

Sarah Manton, Geneva Carr and Matthew Greerin a scene from Alan Ayckbourn’s “Things We Do for Love” at Westport Country Playhouse. (Carol Rosegg, Westport Country Playhouse / August 28, 2014)

The show: "Things We Do for Love" at Westport Country Playhouse.

What makes it special?: Another fine Alan Ayckbourn play presented by the theater, directed by John Tillinger.

First impressions: Ayckbourn's 1997 play takes place on three floors of a British home, but there are many more levels than that surrounding the theme of crazy love in this overlong, sometimes bleak, but often insightful and clever play about relationships between men and women.

Well-cast and zestfully staged (Tillinger at his best), the darkly comic work takes a long time to set up and sometimes stretches credulity. Still, the play's slyness, its mixture of pain and absurdity and the overall execution of the production make it a smart and welcome offering for the theater that has been a happy home for the prolific master of domestic comic-dramas.

What's it about?: Barbara (Geneva Carr), a busy and brusk exec assistant (her nickname in school was "Spike"), owns a three-story home. She lives on the main floor, a loner postman Gilbert (Michael Mastro) has a flat in the basement and an old school chum Nikki (Sarah Manton) and her Scottish fiancé Hamish (Matthew Greer) are moving into the apartment upstairs while their dream home is being built.

But not all is as it seems. Gilbert has an obsession with Barbara. Hamish and Nikki are having intimacy issues. And though Barbara and Hamish clearly seem to loathe each other, could there be some sparks there. Nah. They're complete strong-willed opposites.

Ah, but that's Ayckbourn's point: that love has a will of its own, and that it's messy, cruel, sad, violent — and exhausting. Sometimes for the audience as well.

Meaning? The problem is this four-character play — which centers on a limited relationship dynamic — takes quite a bit of time getting to the goods (especially in the long, nearly 90-minute first act). At times, Ayckbourn simply spins his wheels in writing endless variations of these characters' personality points and social minutiae. (Do we really have to endure the long scenes that indicate that Gilbert is a talkative bore? We get it, we get it.)

But once the main romantic conflict kicks it halfway through the play — even if the sudden gear change is more than a little jarring — it grabs you as lust, romance and sexual fantasy get comically (and not so comically) scrambled, especially when its fueled by guilt, panic and lots of alcohol.

The cast: Greer provides energy, snap and testosterone (not to mention a sexy Scottish burr) as a man who is dazed and confused at love's strange pull. Mastro infuses the underwritten Gilbert with some delightful underplaying. And Manton makes us care about the likable and oblivious Nikki, even when there is no follow-through to her character's sketchy but intriguing back story.

Carr again proves to be an expert interpreter of the rhythms and nuances of Ayckbourn's mundane-yet-so-much-more writing. In the difficult role as the imperious, irritating, who-needs-a-man Barbara, she makes her character's emotional journey believable, remarkably.

Who will like it?: Ayckbourn fans, and its good to see a play of his that's a less-than-familiar title being produced.

Who won't?: Those who like their domestic comedies — even those with serious undertones — to be more economically crafted. And it's not for kids. Tell them to wait until they're middle-aged to fully appreciate the sad, sorry and silly state of love and lust.

Twitter review: Love, go figure, but hopefully in a shorter way.

Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: Ayckbourn's plays usually offer some logistical challenge, and here it's with the tri-level set, which designer James Noone mostly succeed. Because of the physicality of the playhouse stage, the goings-on in the basement apartment were pretty much out of sight for much of the audience.

The basics: The show will play through Sept. 7 at the theater at 25 Powers Court, Westport. The show runs 2 hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission. Information: www.westportplayhouse.org.

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