Merry New England

Things We Do for Love is not the funniest British play, but it often manages to do the trick

If the British have a love-hate relationship with the French, it could be said that Americans have a laugh-hate relationship with the Brits. What we find riotously funny in them is what we abhor in ourselves: repressed sexuality, sniveling impishness, and hostility behind a thin veneer of civility. Words like bum, bloke, and shite only superficially denote an English comedy. What really sets it apart is the singularly British ability to turn a tragedy into a farce without relinquishing one iota of despair. Who else can interrupt a scathing battle of wits or a barroom brawl promptly at 3 p.m. for a civilized moment of tea-sipping and crumpet-munching if not the queen's loyal subjects?

English playwright Alan Ayckbourn's most recent works are known for this admixture of Earl Grey civility and bawdy buffoonery that can be pulled off only on the other side of the Atlantic. Ayckbourn has been called a one-man renaissance, and to date he is the most prolific English playwright in history (more prolific than Shakespeare himself, English commentators like to boast). As the artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough, England, he spends most of the year directing other writers' scripts, occasionally directing and debuting a play of his own.

In recent years Ayckbourn's works have become known for their darkly humorous looks at the British middle class. Things We Do for Love, currently being produced at Actors' Playhouse, simply isn't as challenging and dark as recent works like Absent Friends and The Revengers' Comedies. But Actor's Playhouse director David Arisco has assembled an excellent troupe with the talent to play out this romantic farce to its potential. Best friends from high school Barbara Trapes (Lisa Morgan) and Nikki Wickstead (Sandra Ives) haven't seen each other for 11 years. Nikki has recently escaped an abusive relationship and believes she has found true love with her fiancé, Hamish Alexander (Gordon McConnell). Nikki and Hamish plan to stay in Barb's upstairs flat (um, apartment for you non-Anglophiles) until their house is ready.

Nikki and Barb are undeniably opposites. Nikki dresses like an adolescent and acts like a grade schooler. Strutting around in tight leather pants and low-cut shirts, she shrieks with excitement over just about anything. In short she is what people call "well meaning" to avoid words like dumb. Barbara, on the other hand, has evolved into a modern mutation of corporate spinster. She works as an executive assistant, lives alone, and is quick to let you know that she prefers it that way: "Give me a good book, a hot water bottle, and some nice music."

A significant part of the first half of Things We Do for Love is composed of some heart-to-heart chats between Barb and Nikki, which could be summed up as follows:

Discourse One: Independence

Barb: "You have choices: live alone or compromise. I choose to live alone."

Nikki: "I can't. I tried it. I wilt."

Discourse Two: Co-dependence

Barb:"No, you are not a born victim."

Nikki: "But it all happens because of love."

Things We Do for Love is a modern farce, a comedy of stereotypes, and Nikki's and Barb's philosophies can be gleaned from a few swift lines. Within the first three minutes of the play, the fact that Barb and Nikki are stereotypes becomes obvious; Barb is the prude, Nikki the sexpot. These wide brush strokes and easily recognizable characters are fundamental to farce and are enough to launch the comedy. But we don't need all the explication of Nikki's horrible relationship and Barb's spinster status. What makes a farce funny is the idiosyncratic portrayal of these stereotypical characters. We do see this as soon as the plot takes off; unfortunately that doesn't happen till the end of the second half. To outline the plot here won't give much away: Hamish and Barb can't stand each other; consequently they must, of course, end up in bed. Nikki turns out to be frigid beneath her sexy surface, while Barb is a kettle of lust about to boil over. Throw in Gilbert (Gary Marachek), a cross-dressing postal worker/handyman who lives downstairs and is hopelessly smitten with Barb, and the foursome is complete.

Ayckbourn has worked in theater as a director, writer, actor, stage manager, scene painter, prop maker, and lighting-and-sound technician. His in-depth knowledge of the theater is apparent in his plays, which are often noted for their interesting use of theatrical sets, as in The Norman Conquests, a trilogy of plays that shows simultaneous events in the dining room, living room, and garden of the same house during one weekend. The set of Things We Do For Love possesses that same vitality and gives the audience the perverse, voyeuristic thrill that comes with seeing everything at once.

The set is also fertile ground for the burgeoning upstairs-downstairs farce at the center of the play. The only level fully visible to the audience is the ground floor of Barb's home. Above it the audience can see the bottom quarter of Nikki and Hamish's room; below it, the top quarter of Gilbert's basement flat. When Barb and Hamish are upstairs having sex while Nikki is downstairs behind a closed door singing at the top of her lungs, the virtually empty set, full of contradiction, takes on hilarious proportions. This scene is a perfect example of "less is more" -- the audience can see only pants flying and feet jumping, accompanied by the crescendo of the prep school anthem and the guttural orgasms of Barb and Hamish.

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