South Coast Repertory closes an exceptional season with a bright, deftly played production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “How the Other Half Loves,” about marital infidelities that cross the English class divide.
Ayckbourn’s ingenious theatrical innovation in this 1970 play has two scenes played simultaneously on the same set. Cliff Faulkner’s polished design has a carefully split personality: A slab of Fiona and Frank Foster’s elegantly appointed home butts abruptly against the more vibrant squalor of Bob and Teresa Phillips’ house. Even the coffee table is divided down the middle: half-posh, half-shabby mod. When Fiona Foster picks up a phone to dial her lover Bob, he answers it two feet away.
The conception’s suitability for farce may be easily imagined, but it also brings into vivid focus the differences — and the similarities — between the two primary couples in the play: the upper-crusty Fiona and Frank (Paxton Whitehead and Kandis Chappell) and the lower-to-middle-class Bob and Teresa (Robert Curtis-Brown and Nike Doukas). Frank and Bob work at the same firm, and they also have in common marriages tinged with traditional forms of dissatisfaction. Teresa, tied down by a baby, feels useless and ignored, and Doukas’ natural performance makes us feel every ounce of her frustration. Her mildly boorish husband, Bob, is tired of being complained to; he’s more interested in getting a decent cup of coffee in the morning.
That the Fosters’ marriage is no more idyllic can be gleaned from the fact that Fiona was absent until the wee hours on the evening of their wedding anniversary. And where was she? Frank distractedly asks. The long-delayed answer to the question provides the pivot on which the play’s farcical maneuvering turns. Desperate to think up a plausible excuse, Fiona phones Bob, and they hit upon a serviceable story involving another associate of Bob and Frank’s, William Featherstone (Ron Boussom), and his memorably mousy wife, Mary (Jane Macfie). Things take several turns for the worse when circumstances contrive to bring Mary and William to the doorsteps of both households on two subsequent evenings, in the play’s indescribably delirious centerpiece, a scene that requires Boussom and Macfie to attend both dinner parties at the same time.
As the man on whose obtuseness about his wife’s infidelity the comedy feeds, Whitehead gives a brilliant performance, bringing addled charm and quite a lot of dignity to his cuckolded husband role. Chappell is faultless as the chic Fiona (her clothes include a lime green caftan that Chappell pulls off with startling aplomb), whose air of talking to her husband as to an errant child spells volumes. Boussom and Macfie, as the put-upon Featherstones, are amusingly wan and awkward.
The appeal of farce is its relentless refusal to dig deeply, as it skims breezily over the most atrocious behavior. Ayckbourn brings an unusual depth of character to the genre — he draws his adulterers and adulterees with glints of real, dark depths, but he remains true to the tone of farce by never letting them be exposed. The ending is largely happy — equilibrium is restored. The depths have been viewed, but carefully turned away from. Director David Emmes and his sharp cast have a firm grasp on all the niceties of Ayckbourn’s play, and whip through its curves with seamless panache.