Absurd Person Singular

The most famous sequence from Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain" is the silent scene in which Paul Newman takes several minutes to kill an East German spy. That's nothing compared with playwright Alan Ayckbourn's audacity in "Absurd Person Singular."

The most famous sequence from Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain” is the silent scene in which Paul Newman takes several minutes to kill an East German spy. That’s nothing compared with playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s audacity in “Absurd Person Singular.” Defeated wife Eva spends the entirety of the second act not only not speaking, but trying and failing to commit suicide — and keeping the audience laughing throughout. That Alan Strachan’s revival of this 1972 classic largely pulls that off is proof of the production’s strength, but miscasting in several roles makes for a bumpy ride.

Ayckbourn is fond of setting himself structural challenges. Part of the pleasure of watching this play is the neat legibility of what could be a cumbersome device — that of watching the fall and rise of three couples in three different kitchens on three successive Christmas Eves.

This is class struggle as comedy. The first act takes place in the new kitchen Sidney Hopcroft (David Bamber) has built for his cleanliness-obsessed, frightened mouse wife, Jane (Jane Horrocks). In Horrocks’ perpetually rubber-gloved hands, Jane is a squealing ninny in fluffy slippers, terrified at having to host a Christmas drinks party for Sidney’s smart bank manager, Ronald Brewster-Mason (David Horovitch), and his snob of a wife, Marion (Jenny Seagrove), plus local architect Geoffrey (John Gordon Sinclair) and his wife Eva (Lia Williams).

Accidentally locked out of her own house, Horrocks wins her best laughs via frantic miming — rain-sodden and gesticulating wildly through the glass backdoor. But although her absence from the party is a social disaster, Sidney gets the loan from Ronald for a cheap land deal on which to build a development of shops.

In the middle year, Geoffrey (nicely smug Sinclair’s self-serving manner is as smooth as his neatly flared ’70s jeans) is busy sneering at the Hopcrofts’ shoddy development, having affairs and ignoring his wife. Eva, meanwhile, is dumbfounded both by Geoffrey and her entire life. With the Hopcrofts and Brewster-Masons arriving for Christmas drinks, Eva faces the squalor of her own kitchen and tries every possible escape route — death leap, knifing, gas, poison and hanging — only to be repeatedly saved when the guests misread her as accident-prone.

It’s that gap between the outlandishness of everyone’s actions and the deep core of Eva’s pain that’s so absurdly funny.

Yet this production’s most sustained laughter occurs in the final-act farce sequence, where everyone tries to pretend they’re not at home for fear of having to entertain the nouveau riche nightmare Hopcrofts, who have ascended the social ladder while everyone else is staring down disappointment and defeat.

What makes that scene work is not just Ayckbourn’s faultless construction, but the fact that no one actor stands out — everyone is working together like a well-oiled machine. Elsewhere, however, most of the cast are working too hard for the simple reason that every one of them is at least a decade older than in previous productions.

 That shift in age removes the effervescence of youth and adds a sour tone. Being the wrong side of 50 makes nonsense of Ronald and Marion having young children. And the longevity of their marriage contradicts the emotions they express.

Similarly, Marion’s speech about suddenly realizing she’s old is sad and funny coming from the mouth of a woman in her 30s — as was Sheila Hancock in the original West End production. With a much older woman, it seems merely deluded. Seagrove is a funny upper-class drunk, but her performance lacks depth.

Similarly, Bamber is too old to be playing a character set up as a young, unthinking, money-grabber. He’s so over-emphatic — standing with Chaplinesque feet turned out, clinging neurotically onto words — that his relationship with the Horrocks doesn’t make emotional sense and the comedy rhythm grows fitful.

The strongest performance is the least effortful. Horovitch quietly and unobtrusively steals the show by refusing to play the comedy. He touches on his character’s pompousness with affecting subtlety and, given a line such as “tricky things, these soda siphons,” plays it with compassion toward his hostess rather than as an actor in search of a laugh.

Michael Pavelka’s ’70s sets are frankly wobbly. Strachan’s direction overcomes that and ensures that the play’s essential balance — the characters’ absurdly funny behavior versus their bitterly sad core — is maintained. But the over-eager playing means that Ayckbourn’s finest stand-alone play only intermittently fires on all cylinders.

Absurd Person Singular

Garrick Theater, London; 716 seats; £45 $92 top

  • Production: A Bill Kenwright presentation of a play in three acts by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Alan Strachan.
  • Crew: Sets, Michael Pavelka; costumes, Brigid Guy; lighting, Jason Taylor; sound, Ian Horrocks-Taylor; production stage manager, Isobel Perrin. Opened, reviewed Dec. 11, 2007. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.
  • Cast: Jane - Jane Horrocks Sidney - David Bamber Ronald - David Horovitch Marion - Jenny Seagrove Eva - Lia Williams Geoffrey - John Gordon Sinclair