Review: ‘Alarms and Excursions’

After his thematically portentous, even apocalyptic "Copenhagen," Michael Frayn returns to comic form with "Alarms and Excursions," though I hope he, for one, won't think this play in essence any less serious, although its points of reference are. To be sure, the new play is not about the development of the neutron bomb, even if its gadget-filled world --- as glimpsed over eight sketches, two of which are linked --- does have its own significant detonations. But when "Alarms and Excursions" is good --- which is much of the time --- it's both dizzyingly funny and painful about the way too many of us live right now. And when a skit or two goes on too long --- or the putative star, Felicity Kendal, is dragging the whole down --- one just has to grin and bear it, which on this occasion proves no great hardship.

After his thematically portentous, even apocalyptic “Copenhagen,” Michael Frayn returns to comic form with “Alarms and Excursions,” though I hope he, for one, won’t think this play in essence any less serious, although its points of reference are. To be sure, the new play is not about the development of the neutron bomb, even if its gadget-filled world — as glimpsed over eight sketches, two of which are linked — does have its own significant detonations. But when “Alarms and Excursions” is good — which is much of the time — it’s both dizzyingly funny and painful about the way too many of us live right now. And when a skit or two goes on too long — or the putative star, Felicity Kendal, is dragging the whole down — one just has to grin and bear it, which on this occasion proves no great hardship.

Actually, the world of “Alarms and Excursions” isn’t as different as one might at first think from that of “Copenhagen,” which opened here in May. (In some ways, the two plays are far more closely linked than, say, “Noises Off” and “Benefactors,” Frayn’s twin comic and tragic benchmarks of the early ’80s.) If the dramatist’s concurrent National Theater hit shows mankind in thrall to weaponry of its own making, so, too, does this West End entry posit our helplessness when confronted with the gizmos and gadgets of contemporary life (answering machines, burglar alarms and so forth) that, of course, we brought into being.

And while it may seem insultingly trivial to mention in the same breath the atomic bomb and the sort of newfangled corkscrew so clever that to attempt to use it is to land yourself in the hospital, as happens here, one could say that “Copenhagen” takes a macrocosmic view of the same destruction that “Alarms and Excursions” examines on the domestic front: either way, the joke is on us.

Luckily, the jokes in “Alarms and Excursions” tend to come thick and fast under the ever-watchful eye of Michael Blakemore, here marking his seventh collaboration with the playwright. (A sleek asset to the duo this time around are Lez Brotherston’s deft and witty designs.) The evening’s format is no doubt familiar to Blakemore, as the director of the Off Broadway theatrical omnibus “Death Defying Acts.”

The disadvantage of the potpourri play is the sense that one is always starting from scratch, and that each skit is only as good as the particular conceit behind it. But the delights arise equally from watching a fertile mind spring surprise after surprise of the sort that may find some theatergoers chuckling in belated recognition days or even weeks after the event.

The two best sketches both come in the second act and have little to do with Kendal, whose lone solo turn — as a Thatcher-like politico betrayed by both her autocue and her wig — is the play’s one total dud. Far better are Robert Bathurst and Josie Lawrence playing strangers who meet at a noisy cocktail party , their amiable chatter drowned out by a din that leads Bathurst to assume erroneously that Lawrence is ripe for seduction. Entitled “Heart to Heart,” the scene is a cavalcade of mounting confusion that ends with Bathurst introducing Lawrence to her own husband. The scenario will strike chords with anyone who has smiled his way cheerfully (if uncomprehendingly) through any occasion where ambient volume makes discourse impossible.

Bathurst returns, invaluably, in the closing segment, playing a German visitor to London (“Hello, this is Dietrich”) whose hosts’ best efforts to greet him at the airport go disastrously awry.

Insisting against all the evidence on their kindness, Bathurst lands in the hospital, while Kendal, as a no less well-meaning mother paying a family visit of her own, winds up in prison. That the playlet is told through successive telephone messages adds to the delirium, though a generation or two younger than Frayn may well wonder why the characters don’t just succumb — they can clearly afford it — and purchase mobile phones.

Indeed, there’s something rather charmingly old-fashioned about the objects of Frayn’s outrage, as if he had just discovered the irritations of smoke alarms with incomprehensible instructions while the rest of us are worried about computers that crash. (Perhaps Frayn still writes in pen and ink.) Some topics, though, never date, which may explain the appeal of a sketch set during an airplane take-off that could have been lifted from the film “Airplane!” Or a subsequent one at a speech whose listeners attempt to juggle drinks, note-taking and handbags, with knee-trembling results.

And even when Frayn’s follow-through at times deserts him — the opening sketch implies ruin on the workfront for Nicky Henson, a traumatic eventuality that isn’t returned to — he is matched only by Alan Ayckbourn in his ability to detail a crumbling marriage in the swiftest of strokes, as Henson and Lawrence in the last play make clear. (The two dramatists share a passion, too, for exposing the true English disease of embarrassment.)

An alum of “Noises Off,” Henson is in especially ripe form, never more so than rising from a comatose state at his own dinner party sure that it’s time for him to leave. Even Kendal eventually jettisons her stale winsome persona, pausing to dish the dirt at the aforementioned supper that — try as its participants might — just cannot end. And if several of the sketches are stretched as thin as Frayn’s not dissimilar script for his 1986 film “Clockwise, ” “Alarms and Excursions” does mostly know its own length, leaving viewers alive to the noise of their own laughter all the way home.

Alarms and Excursions

(COMEDY REVUE; GIELGUD THEATER; 883 SEATS; $:27.50 ($ 45) TOP)

Production

LONDON A Michael Codron and Lee Dean presentation of a comedy revue in two acts by Michael Frayn. Directed by Michael Blakemore. Sets and costumes, Lez Brotherston.

Crew

Lighting, Paul Pyant; sound, John A. Leonard; music, Terry Davies. Opened, reviewed Sept. 14, 1998. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

With

With: Felicity Kendal, Nicky Henson, Josie Lawrence, Robert Bathurst.
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