The petit bourgeois might think they’ve tamed the Docklands with their trendy lofts overlooking the Thames, but Alan Ayckbourn can still see the raw fear in their eyes. “Role Play,” the legendary comic playwright’s latest (and wholly stellar) farce to reach these shores, might have an unusually preposterous premise — comic complications ensue when a character falls, literally, from the sky onto the edge of someone’s balcony — but if you read between the many, many laughs, you can see a savvy dissection of all that terrorizes your run-of-the-mill middle-class Brit these days.
Some of those fears have been Ayckbourn fodder for years: class anxiety, the approval of other generations, the danger of your fiancee turning directly into her mother. But in “Role Play,” snagging a fearlessly outlandish U.S. premiere at the Ayckbourn-loving Pittsburgh Public from director Ted Pappas, some of those terrors reflect the new world order that terrifies your average Yorkshireman.
Unusually for Ayckbourn, this new play is rooted in the fear of losing one’s children to a world of immigrants, multiculturalism and all other kinds of terrifyingly pluralistic change. Ayckbourn’s genius is that he is able to fit all of this into a basic farcical structure that hasn’t changed a jot since about 1972.
So few playwrights today know how to write a decent domestic farce, without overwhelming the old rules with postmodern tangents, that Ayckbourn’s familiar theatrical lexicon feels fresh and appealing all over again — even for those of us who overdosed on his pervasive works in the amateur British theatricals of the 1970s.
In “Role Play” (which does not display any of this author’s frequent detours into stylistic innovation), events revolve around the most rudimentary of farcical premises — the dinner at which a pair of nervous young things (both software types) will inform their disparate parents of their intention to marry.
In this instance, the chatter about matching forks and whether Mummy will approve is interrupted by the arrival of a lap dancer and her minder, who live in the penthouse upstairs owned by an unseen East End heavy — the kind of fellow who ruled the neighborhood before the yuppies arrived with their stainless-steel fridges.
The lap dancer (played by the outre Meredith Zinner) arrives by falling from one balcony to the next. Her bald thug (Mark Mineart) comes in the front door, which he promptly locks, lest the boss show up. That means nerdy Julie-Ann (Tressa Glover) and normative Justin (Brian Hutchison) must hold together their dinner plans, even as Justin’s mother, Arabella (Jane Summerhays, in full-on “AbFab” mode) arrives, pissed as a newt.
Most of the conflict in the play flows from the appearance of Julie-Ann’s parents, Derek and Dee Jobson (the superb Ross Bickell and Cynthia Darlow). It’s this pair — garden-center owners in Yorkshire — that Ayckbourn knows best, and the scribe mercilessly lampoons their peccadilloes, fake emotional honesty, humor and, above all, petty prejudices.
“Each in his own ornamental pond,” says Derek, searching for an apt racist metaphor.
“Role Play” starts out slowly, and it’s tough to buy the initial setup, even in a farcical universe. Much of the humor involving the cockneys upstairs — unwanted lap dances, bad accents, thuggish grunts — isn’t especially new. But the other characters (surely intended as reflections of the theatergoing public) positively zing. By the end of the night, you’ve had so many laughs and caught so much social wisdom, you’re more than willing to forgive the early contrivances.
Pappas’ Pitt premiere wisely updates the typical Ayckbourn ambience with a hipper sound design, a contempo look and slick staging. But, for better or worse, it’s directed in the style of out-and-out farce, with no moment going unmilked. Perfs are broad, sure, but they’re consistently so. They mostly work deliciously. For sure, this is a script worthy of an outing in New York, the place that got that whole bloody loft thing started in the first place.