With Alan Ayckbourn’s “How the Other Half Loves” at the Pasadena Playhouse, director Larry Arrick uses an electric chain saw where a chisel is required. Chain saws can be useful tools, but mostly for cutting down trees, not for pruning a rose garden. In Americanizing an English sex farce, Arrick has replaced restraint with brashness, but it’s the very controlled nature of British demeanor that makes the ensuing frantic antics amusing. Here, the performers maneuver gamely, but also stridently, through the farcical chaos in a style, and in costumes, garish enough to flatten the humor into one long, and significantly unfunny, gag.
The story begins simply enough, allowing plenty of complications to encroach later. Teresa Phillips (Jeanie Hackett), a new mother, is upset that her husband, the working-class Bob (Jamison Jones), came home at 2 in the morning the night before. We learn quickly that he was with his boss’s wife, the older, and richer, Fiona Foster (April Shawhan), who tries to divert her easily distracted hubby, Frank (Brian Reddy), from asking too many questions.
Ayckbourn is a playful dramatist, and in this case, he’s created an intermingling of two couples that finds a structural reflection in the way scenes occur simultaneously in the two households, blended together well in Ursula Belden’s set design. There’s pleasure in seeing actors maneuver around a space that’s being used for double purposes, and fun in keeping track of exactly how the alibis intermingle as well. Both Bob and Fiona use as an excuse the unwitting Detweilers, nerdy William (Keith Langsdale), who’s about to be transferred into Frank’s department, and his extremely nervous wife, Mary (Lily Knight).
In the second scene, we see the decidedly dull Detweilers come to dinner, first at the Fosters, then at the Phillips, with both evenings presented at once, the events overlapping with ever-gaining speed. In act two, the secrets come even closer to the surface, with Brian Reddy taking center stage as the boss who decides it’s his job to work out the marriages of his employees, all the while not realizing that he’s the cuckold.
Ayckbourn’s version of that peculiar specimen, the British sex farce, is 30 years old now, and Arrick makes sure it shows its age. He presents the play as a period piece, set when it was written in the very early ’70s, complete with fashions to match, designed by Diana Eden.
While keeping the era intact, the director transports the play from London to Southern California, dumping those English accents and trying to bring home the play’s satire on class mores. One could write a doctoral dissertation on why class humor just doesn’t apply to American culture as it does to the British, but for our purposes here let’s just say the effort is thoroughly ineffective.
The story moves quickly enough, although there’s still plenty of air to be taken out of the show, and the fight scenes are still very restrained and stagy at this point. The complications of the narrative are laid out with clarity, but while the playing gets faster, the laughs don’t really come with any greater frequency.
There’s a serious lack of building tension here, primarily because the performances, particularly Reddy’s and Hackett’s, are so broad and loud they drown out anything happening underneath. Reddy looks and acts a bit like Don Rickles, spitting out non sequitur with sharp timing but not an ounce of nuance. Remember, this is the upper-class male character in the play, but Reddy seems classless from start to finish — he’s not so much patronizing as he is dotty. When the character’s mind is supposedly churning, it comes across as a blank stare.
Langsdale and Knight improve the show whenever they appear, bringing a less forced tone to their more sharply drawn caricatures. Shawhan also has some genuinely strong comic moments, although she’s particularly overwhelmed by the overdone clothes. Even what’s good here seems smothered.