The American premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's two interconnected and simultaneously staged dramas provides a perfect opportunity for the Goodman Theater to showcase its spiffy new two-theater facility in Chicago's Loop. In persuading the Amazing Mr. A to look beyond Gotham for the U.S. preem, Robert Falls and his enhanced Goodman seem to have demonstrated increased international clout.
The American premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s two interconnected and simultaneously staged dramas provides a perfect opportunity for the Goodman Theater to showcase its spiffy new two-theater facility in Chicago’s Loop. In persuading the Amazing Mr. A to look beyond Gotham for the U.S. preem, Robert Falls and his enhanced Goodman seem to have demonstrated increased international clout. And indeed the handful of big, multi-venue nonprofits are actually the natural Stateside venue for these funny, complex tales of English hinterland angst, which demand a physical plant and a whopping budget to boot.Falls delivers an emotionally rich production that, for the most part, achieves the right blend of broad comedy and upper-middle-class angst as it follows the mainly miserable inhabitants of a country house and garden on the day of a particularly traumatic garden fete. In “House,” we see what’s happening inside as two marriages unravel and young people struggle for love. In the separately ticketed “Garden,” we see more exterior fragments of the same story. By staging “House” in the larger mainstage (where it will be seen by all Goodman subscribers) and “Garden” in the smaller studio (where it is seen by far fewer people), Falls has probably hit on a production formula that other theaters doing these plays will want to follow. As was the case at the U.K.’s National Theater, where the plays premiered last spring, it’s clear that the audience thoroughly enjoys knowing that actors are walking off one stage and dashing on to another to offer another audience a different view of events. The experience of seeing the same tale from two perspectives is undeniably rich and stimulating. And because the familial events taking place in this particular house and garden are so replete with pain and alienation, the play avoids the charge that it is merely a clever exercise. Like most mature Ayckbourn, this piece is gently politicized and especially adept at noting the gulf of miscommunication between genders and generations.Some of Ayckbourn’s previous experiments in form have been rightly admired for brilliantly structured theatrics but have lacked an organic relationship to the material. That’s not the case here. The concept allows Ayckbourn to explore the perils of miscommunication by allowing an audience to fill in gaps in its knowledge only when it starts again at the beginning of the story. On any number of levels, these are very interesting plays, but only “House” could stand on its own. It has all of the thematic heft and most of the best dialogue. “Garden,” by contrast, sometimes feels like filler — albeit good-quality mulch — for the main, indoor event. Accents are curious in this production. Although the program references Yorkshire, all the characters talk like they are from the south, and a couple of the minor players push too hard toward English country rube. But there’s splendid work from the leads, especially the nicely beleaguered Joel Hatch and the outstanding Susan Hart, who offers a rich performance as the philandering fellow’s sad wife. There’s also a remarkably assured performance from young Liesel Matthews as the couple’s smart but smug kid (one of this play’s most searing and original characters). Overall, the acting is strong. With huge settings from Linda Buchanan on his side, Falls offers a grand-scale staging that beautiful evokes a multi-venue estate. The lobby fete may be a little wimpier than the British original, but this is, by any standards, a premiere with big guns blazing.