'Alphabetical Order'

Maintains such a strange tone that it ends up less funny than one feels it's supposed to be.

Consider Keen Company’s production of Brit scribe Michael Frayn’s 1975 newsroom farce “Alphabetical Order.” On the one hand, it seems dated to the day it was written at first; on the other, it’s about a daily paper on the verge of collapsing, so it turns out to be plenty timely in the end. Then there’s the staging itself — helmer and Keen a.d. Carl Forsman choreographs it almost perfectly, but he also maintains such a strange tone that it ends up less funny than one feels it’s supposed to be.

Part of the tonal problem lies with lead actor Audrey Lynn Weston, who plays Lesley like she’s constantly afraid she’s going to burst into flames. It’s funny for a few minutes when she first walks into the hilariously cluttered newsroom as the paper’s newly-hired library assistant, but it’s the only note she strikes during the entire play, and by the end of the piece the effect is downright surreal.

And it’s a shame, because Lesley is a fun character, mostly because she’s not at all a fun person. In an office full of philandering goof-offs, she’s the only one without a sense of humor or a carefree attitude, and so she’s able to whip everyone into shape entirely through the miracle of passive aggression.

On the other hand, the rest of the cast seems perfectly united. Brad Bellamy is particularly good as monosyllabic alcoholic writer Arnold, while William Connell exudes waves of self-important charm as John, the womanizing reporter who’s always looking for an obscure quote and a reason to flirt with Lesley’s chipper boss Lucy (the lovely Angela Reed).

But they, too, are all missing a little something. One suspects it’s something British; these are characters from traditional English comedy and while the actors’ accents are mostly very good, they don’t quite seem to understand the broad types that this farce is trading in, and so what might otherwise come off as a charmingly pushy remark from busybody features editor Nora (Margaret Daly) just seems invasive and weird — as much for the way it’s received as for the way it’s delivered.

Nathan Heverin’s dirty-then-clean set of filing cabinets and overflowing boxes is a perfect throwback, as are Jennifer Paar’s costumes. Of everyone involved in this play, she seems to understand the humor of its world most clearly. When deaf-and-in-denial Wally (a very good Paul Molnar) walks onto the stage you can barely hear him over his suit — one of those outrageous plaid numbers that the English appear to have worn in the 1970′s without a trace of irony.

It’s that deadpan acceptance of the totally ridiculous that is missing here, and while this keeps “Alphabetical Order” from reaching heights it might otherwise have scaled — Frayn did write “Noises Off,” after all — it doesn’t keep the play from being perfectly fine entertainment. But it’s hard to imagine the ever-sincere Keen was aspiring to the latter.

Alphabetical Order

Theater Row-Clurman; 99 seats; $58.50

Production

A Keen Company presentation of a play in two acts by Michael Frayn. Directed by Carl Forsman.

Creative

Set, Nathan Heverin; costumes, Jennifer Paar; lighting, Josh Bradford; sound, Jill B. C. duBoff; production stage manager, Justin Scribner. Opened Sept. 26, 2010; reviewed Sept. 23. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

Lesley Audrey Lynn Weston Geoffrey Jon Windsor-Cunningham Arnold Brad Bellamy John William Connell Lucy Angela Reed Nora Margaret Daly Wally Paul Molnar
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