With more than 50 plays to his name, British playwright Alan Ayckbourn can be forgiven for being a trifle bored with the standard formulas for stage comedies. Small wonder he chooses to spice up his plays these days with ingenious staging gambits or inventive conceits. Ayckbourn’s latest bit of ingenuity poses particular challenges for the folks behind the footlights: “House” and “Garden” are “conjoined” plays designed to be staged simultaneously, with one cast playing one set of characters, in two closely connected theaters. The actors zip between stages, so when a character exits “House” he enters “Garden,” and vice versa.
This is a stunt, yes, but the knowledge that a complementary comedy is being played out on an adjacent stage supplies an extra bit of piquancy to the action we’re witnessing. The plays take place on the day of a luncheon gathering (“House”) and a garden fair (“Garden”), and the dual nature gives the increasingly chaotic festivities a sprinkling of authenticity, too; as at a party in actual life, our knowledge of the guests and their various little dramas comes across piecemeal, with significant bits of business remaining a little mysterious. Curiosity is entirely satisfied only if you see both plays.
The settings are typical for an amiable English comedy: for “House,” the living room of a handsome country abode right out of the pages of Tatler, rendered with cozy authority by John Lee Beatty; for “Garden,” Beatty piles on the mossy stones and flowers. Duane Schuler’s warm lighting and Jane Greenwood’s typically well-observed costumes complete the quaint picture.
“House” is the more substantial play, and most of the significant action takes place in its confines. “Garden,” by contrast, might almost have been dreamed up to accommodate a few stray moments Ayckbourn couldn’t sandwich into the other play; it’s all bits and bobs, none-too-scintillating talk about the weather and the impending festivities, with some strained elements of farce ladled on to disguise its dramatic deficiencies.
The lord of this binary kingdom is Teddy Platt (Nicholas Woodeson), a member of the peerage who inherited the family business along with the house. On this momentous summer afternoon, he’s expecting a visit from a politically well-connected old friend, Gavin Ryng-Mayne (Daniel Gerroll), who is sounding out Teddy about the possibility of running for office — another old family business.
There’s just one problem: Teddy’s wife, Trish (Jan Maxwell), is rather ostentatiously not acknowledging his presence. Teddy’s latest affair, with the flighty wife of his cluelessly chipper friend and neighbor, Giles Mace (Michael Countryman), has finally opened her eyes to the emptiness of the marriage, and she’s on the verge of a momentous decision herself. Further complicating matters is the tortured emotional friction between the Maces’ adoring son, Jake (Carson Elrod) and the Platts’ self-satisfied daughter, Sally (Bryce Dallas Howard), as well as the expected arrival of a French film star, rather dopily named Lucille Cadeau (Olga Sosnovska), who has been corraled into opening the garden party.
As his output would suggest, Ayckbourn is an extraordinarily facile playwright — in various senses of the word. On the positive side, his plots are neatly devised, his dialogue is fluid and often funny, his characters a mixture of robustly drawn comic types (the smarmy Mr. Ryng-Mayne, the dipso-nympho French actress) and more fully fleshed-out, complicated men and women (as in “House’s” central character, Maxwell’s Trish Platt).
But the ease of his writing can also deteriorate into flaccidness and a dependency on stock jokes and situations, supplemented by reams of rote sentimental chatter. There are dull and generic-feeling stretches in both plays, when one is inclined to wonder if more interesting things are being said onstage next door, by more fascinating people; the answer, one discovers, is not necessarily — particularly if you see “House” before the negligible “Garden.” Even added together, the plays make only a slight — if pleasant — impression.
Acting of a high caliber, and the efficient, unostentatious direction of John Tillinger, mask some of the mediocrity. Maxwell delivers the most meticulously crafted performance in “House” as the troubled Trish. A naturally refined actress, she brings a warm, wounded delicacy to her depiction of a woman no longer willing to make the compromises her marriage has required. Woodeson is feisty and funny as the complacent Teddy, and his increasing alienation from the goings-on in his own home provides one of “House’s” funniest recurring gags (at the conclusion of act one, virtually no one is acknowledging his presence).
Notwithstanding a strenuous accent that suggests she’s been watching rather too much “Masterpiece Theater,” Veanne Cox, who appears predominantly in “Garden,” gives another of her deliciously over-the-top turns as the adulterous housewife cartwheeling into a nervous collapse. Countryman is endearingly on the mark as the cuckolded husband with a heart of gold. Howard (daughter of Ron) makes an able New York stage debut as the conflicted Sally (although she, too, could ease up on that no doubt diligently acquired English accent), and Elrod is touching as her ardent but neglected suitor. Patricia Connolly makes what she can of her off-the-rack character, a maid with a gift for malapropisms.
Admiration for the skill and charm of the cast extends, in this case, to respect for their stamina and steely nerves, too, since the speedy to’ing-and-fro’ing poses its own set of challenges. The actors look both exhausted and elated at curtain time, reinforcing the suspicion, alas, that for all the hard work involved, not least those quick sprints from stage to stage for those bows, the performers are actually having a better time than the audience.