Alan Ayckbourn's best works are incisive dissections of class and coupledom in Britain, gently brushed by melancholy. But neglect that darker strain and some of the earlier comedies, especially, can seem quite trifling. Such is the case with John Tillinger's pedestrian staging for Manhattan Theater Club of "Absurd Person Singular."

Alan Ayckbourn’s best works are incisive dissections of class and coupledom in Britain, gently brushed by melancholy, with the recent “Private Fears in Public Places” a shining example. But neglect that darker strain and some of the earlier comedies, especially, can seem quite trifling. Such is the case with John Tillinger’s pedestrian staging for Manhattan Theater Club of “Absurd Person Singular,” a mummified romp that leaves its capable cast thrashing about with nowhere interesting to go. While it generates mild chuckles, there’s no escaping the thoroughly unnecessary revival’s air of bland road-company serviceability.

Three acts that trace the interactions of three couples over three consecutive Christmases, Ayckbourn’s 1972 comedy is an improvement on MTC’s last triptych at the Biltmore, Elaine May’s lamentable “After the Night and the Music.”

It does offer one significant reward in Mireille Enos, who follows her fragile dipsomaniac Honey in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with a compelling comic turn that takes her from a pill popper dangerously skirting the edge of insanity to a catatonic ragdoll to a woman back from the abyss, stripped of her pride and yet still wearily detached and imperious.

Arguably Tillinger’s most glaring slip-up is his decision to paint the central couple, lower-class up-and-comers Sidney and Jane Hopcroft (Alan Ruck, Clea Lewis), as innocuous innocents — a glimmer of calculation beneath their eager-to-please social ineptitude might have given the Hopcrofts’ climb from the margins of suburbia to prosperity and power a little bite. Instead, there’s barely a hint of self-satisfaction as these former nobodies become circus ringmasters in control of the once rich and successful associates who so disdained them. The timid approach undermines Ruck’s work in particular.

Played as frantic, door-slamming farce, the opening act takes place in the Hopcrofts’ sparkling kitchen, as Jane fanatically cleans while Sidney prepares for the arrival of guests for cocktails. Aware of the importance of the “You scratch mine, I’ll scratch yours” covenant, Sidney is determined to cement a relationship with his sniffy upper-crust bank manager, Ronald Brewster-Wright (Paxton Whitehead), who’s accompanied by his gin-guzzling wife, Marion (Deborah Rush), all smiling condescension. The party also includes architect Geoffrey Jackson (Sam Robards), a smug philanderer, and his bored, borderline unstable wife, Eva (Enos).

Act two shifts, a year later, to the Jacksons’ messy industrial-chic kitchen, where Eva sits in a bathrobe drowning in whiskey and rendered mute as Geoffrey reiterates his plans to shack up with another woman. When the Brewster-Wrights and the Hopcrofts arrive for cocktails, they remain oblivious to the domestic drama unfolding. Jane sets about cleaning the oven, Sidney attacks the blocked kitchen sink, Ronald tries to replace a light bulb and Marion drinks — while Eva makes failed suicide attempts.

Enos’ zombielike determination to die amid the unrelenting busy-ness of everyone else onstage fuels this central act with a reasonably steady laugh quota.

Not so the final chapter. In the Brewster-Wrights’ drafty Victorian kitchen, where the heating system has seized up, Ronald sits shivering with Eva and Geoffrey while the now hopelessly booze-sodden Marion remains in self-imposed exile in an upstairs bedroom. Geoffrey’s deep in debt and professionally disgraced; his only remaining option for employment is suddenly flourishing developer Sidney.

With the right light touch, deft timing and a judicious streak of malice, the ensuing dance when Sidney and Jane arrive to impose a festive mood on their glum friends should have unleashed the sting of tables turned, upstarts vilified and arrogance humbled. Instead, under Tillinger’s limp guidance, the scene is merely shrill and silly, petering out with an insipid fizzle where it should close with a snarl.

Having gone from unprepossessing to overbearing, Sidney ultimately makes everyone else dance to his tune. And the failure to extract any nasty delight from this reversed social order rests at least in part with Ruck, perhaps too busy grappling with an inconsistent British accent to sink his teeth into the part.

But the production’s failings are far more general, hinting at a superficial exploration of the play that shortchanges all the actors, none of whom seem the least bit relaxed. Even the ever-amusing Rush is reduced here to a familiar cliche, while only Enos’ Eva emerges as a person in any way intriguing.

In choosing to keep his foot on the accelerator, focusing on frothy slapstick and ignoring the anxiety, anger and tensions simmering underneath, Tillinger has left Ayckbourn’s comedy sadly defanged.

Absurd Person Singular

Biltmore Theater; 650 seats; $80 top

Production

A Manhattan Theater Club presentation of a play in three acts by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by John Tillinger.

Creative

Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Bruce Ellman; production stage manager, Diane DiVita. Opened Oct. 18, 2005. Reviewed Oct. 12. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Jane - Clea Lewis Sidney - Alan Ruck Ronald - Paxton Whitehead Marion - Deborah Rush Eva - Mireille Enos Geoffrey - Sam Robards
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