Your elephant has been delivered, as usual, it’s waiting in the garden. But what are you going to call it? Hodge? Gush? Admiral Benbow? Hiram B Larkspur? Tis-pity-she’s-a-whore Hignett? That’s the conundrum facing long-married suburban couple, the Paradocks (geddit?) in the first of the Donmar Warehouse’s triple-bill of British Absurdist comedies. The evening’s selling point is the premiere of Michael Frayn’s surrealist take on French farce, set literally in the middle of nowhere. But the nicely achieved comic tone of dislocated reality is set by the previous two plays.
Douglas Hodge’s three-for-one production, collectively titled “Absurdia,” is held together by Vicki Mortimer’s inspired set design. At the end of the first play, the jauntily wallpapered, single-windowed back wall of the Paradocks’ living room that has dominated the three-sided stage, falls perfectly — in Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” fashion — over totally unperturbed, unscathed Bro Paradock (Peter Capaldi).
In its place is another wallpapered living room. In readiness for the third play, that room, in turn, collapses to reveal a cork-covered floor and back wall which, hotly lit by Paule Constable, instantly conjures the setting of an endless desert.
The first two plays are revivals of 1950s works by the now octogenarian N. F. Simpson. His plays take supposedly “ordinary” situations and push the linguistic tics and tropes of everyday conversation to the nth degree, turning “normality” upside-down and inside-out. Hence Hodge’s opening gambit of having bowler-hatted stagehands ceremoniously set the stage to be greeted by ramrod-backed John Hodgkinson announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen, there will now be a 15 minute interval.”
In fact, the only break is from normal expectation as the lights go up on the Paradocks quibbling about their elephant in “A Resounding Tinkle.” What — they worry — as Middie (Judith Scott) attends to her raffia-work lampshade, will the neighbors say? They had been expecting a dwarf-sized one but this one is full-scale.
The effect is like watching Duane Hanson hyper-real sculptures come to life. Yet droll though the couple’s bizarrely logical exchanges are, the wit is overplayed. Brandishing cockney accents that wander toward Australia, the consciously exaggerated, bug-eyed performances of Scott and Capaldi push the absurdity beyond the breaking point. Constantly underlining the joke actually undermines the humor.
Matters improve considerably with the arrival of actress Lyndsey Marshal as Uncle Ted, who has had a sex-change (rare in the 1950s). Superbly dressed as an early ’60s Dolly bird — the blonde wig is a performance all by itself — Marshal does a perfectly judged line in awkward female exaggeration.
Her relaxed pin-sharp precision is matched by that of Hodgkinson as the mysterious interrogator of the tighter, more effective second play, “Gladly Otherwise.” His whiplash timing allows humor to build as he grills Mrs. Brandywine (Scott) about sieves and colanders, but also allows a nasty chill to hover as his malevolence is let loose.
The fact that auds’ expectations have been so thoroughly subverted is a boon for the third play — the Frayn work, “The Crimson Hotel” — that plays fast and loose with everything farce holds dear. For starters, there’s no bed, no wardrobe, no doors and, crucially, nowhere to hide.
Capaldi’s playwright Pilou has rushed away with his married leading lady Lucienne (Marshal). She thought they were headed for a hotel, as happens in his farce, but instead he’s taken her to the desert where they won’t be interrupted. Even if their partners appear, they’ll see them a half-hour away on the horizon.
Discombobulated Lucienne persuades Pilou to conjure up the bedroom so between them they lay out the logic of the room. With comically precise mime and beautifully witty sound effects — creaking door, rattling curtain hooks — the couple outlines walls, furniture, even a hidden chamber.
The physical rules thus established, Frayn then piles on layer upon layer of complication. Much as they long to bury themselves in fevered passion, Lucienne’s panic keeps them fraught as they rehearse their excuses in case they’re caught and everything spirals into an extended chase.
The pleasure of the piece arises from the way auds’ imaginations are not so much enlisted as fully engaged. It’s not long before you believe you can see non-existent furniture. Marshal’s hilarious, terrified wobbling as she attempts to fool their (invisible) outraged spouses — “Shimmer, shimmer! They’ll think we’re a mirage!” — is worth the price of admission.
Last year, Hodge directed a peerless production of the great British farce “See How They Run,” one of Frayn’s favorite plays. So it’s no surprise that he handles this deconstruction of farce mechanics with zip and zest.
For all the frantic nonsense on display, his production has an enviable lightness of touch. Like the two characters in Frayn’s concluding coup, the evening cleverly vanishes into nothing. But on the road to nowhere, after a bumpy start, it’s an entertaining ride.