Lost Souls

Masterful social satire and a mixed-bag musical

Alan Ayckbourn’s new comedy typically reflects a deep, and often gimlet-eyed understanding of human nature. The classic comedy of manners—from the 18th century on—has traditionally shaken up and then restored social order, but Ayckbourn turns the form on its head, using it to expose hypocrisy no amount of veneering can hide. Ayckbourn does not write to reassure that everything will turn out just fine. Instead, he marvels at the insanity, isolation, and heartbreak caused by the effort to survive.

It can, of course, be very funny, as in the case of “Absurd Person Singular.” Ayckbourn is one of the few master social satirists working today. In a world of clumsy, obvious comedies that feel compelled to hit one over the head with the supposedly hysterical, Ayckbourn’s satire is oblique and character-driven. It’s just “out there” enough to be funny, but the emotions and motivations of the characters always ring true. The playwright respects his audiences enough to know the knee-slapping belly laugh is not the only type of comedy that succeeds. At the same time, he has command of every tool in the box—slapstick, absurd situations, social stereotypes, and more. Using these judiciously, he is always able to create credible worlds. His reflection of nature may come from the funhouse, but it basically reflects what is there.

“Absurd Person Singular” explores the lives and fates of three couples over three successive Christmas Eves. Jane and Sidney are working class people striving to improve their lives. Jane is an obsessive cleaner, and Sidney a developer of homes—the British equivalent of cookie cutter developments. They are courting Ronald and Marion, a very upper crust family. Ronald works at the bank and can control Sidney’s access to important loans. Marion is a bitter alcoholic who looks down on everyone and everything from her social perch. Eva and Geoffrey are also upper class. Yet Eva is on the brink of suicide, and Geoffrey, an architect, would rather starve than compromise artistic purity.

Each of the three acts is set in one of the couples’ kitchens, and over three years we see that though the essential nature of each character remains the same, changing situations alter the landscape of their lives—and their interactions. As a result Sidney, who in the first act is fawning over his guests as he seeks to get a loan from Ronald, by the end of the third act is dominating the evening in Ronald and Marion’s kitchen. Money has given him power. Ayckbourn cunningly doesn’t suggest that Sidney has been corrupted by his money and success; Sidney’s soul was corrupt from the get-go. His changed status simply gives him the opportunity he previously lacked to be in control.

Up or down, each character travels a unique route, and the effect is consistently interesting. If the comedy seems to run out of steam by the end of Act Three, the trenchant observations never let up, and we realize perhaps what we’ve been laughing at isn’t funny after all.

“In My Life” leading performers Jessica Boevers and Christopher J. Hanke are charming, effortlessly rising above a hodgepodge of material.

The cast is excellent. Clea Lews as Jane delivers a terrific portrait of the neurotic wife and Alan Ruck gives a rich performance as Sidney. Deborah Rush is outstanding as the alcoholic Marion, as is Paxton Whitehead as her husband. Sam Robards does well with the role of Geoffrey. And Mireille Enos shines as Eva. Particularly in the second act, where she doesn’t utter a word, Enos’ physical comedy as she seeks to kill herself is wonderful. It leads to a quite poignant moment in the final act where Eva tells Geoffrey she no longer thinks he’s worth killing herself over.

Director John Tillinger has perfectly captured Ayckbourn’s essential comedic magic—to have an audience laughing hysterically at how painful and imperfect life can be. We are, Ayckbourn consistently demonstrates, simply doing the best we can.

“In my Life,” the new musical, is a bubblegum play list in search of an organizing philosophy. Music, lyric, and book writer Joseph Brooks, has, in effect, written the same song about 20 times in different styles, all in major keys with parallel chords, and tossed them onto the stage at the Music Box with a lot of stuff going on around them. The only way to appreciate this is as a kind of demented parlor game as the audience tries to wrest a coherent narrative from the mishmash.

A brain tumor, a love story about two mentally challenged people, dead people trying to influence lives on earth, a God who wants to be in showbiz or advertising, an over-the-top queen who wants to put on an opera, bitchy gay humor, love-sick survivors, hook-up sex, and a band trying to reassemble after their lead singer is killed––toss and arrange as you will. Plausible transitions and character development are not required. Emotional arcs must be accomplished in 16 bars of treacle-laden music and lyrics.

So why didn’t I hate this as much as I could have? About ten minutes in, I entered a Zen state and stopped trying to make sense of it. Taking acrid pot shots would be too easy, so let me instead praise the cast. In particular, Jessica Boevers and Christopher J. Hanke in the lead roles are charming. Boevers, a dependable Broadway belter does her best with the underwritten part of Jenny. Hanke, though his diction is often sloppy, manages a believable Tourette’s sufferer, a character I can’t recall ever appearing in a musical before. David Turner, who plays the incongruous queen Winston, is doing his best Johnny Depp, but he’s engaging. Roberta Gumbel has a wonderful, operatic voice; I’m glad I got to hear it, though I still don’t know why. Michael Halling is an equally accomplished singer and a strong presence on the stage. Chiara Navarra is the annoying little dead girl Vera who rides around on a scooter. She has a wonderful voice, and if she stops trying to sound like an “American Idol” contestant and discovers final consonants, she will be a force to be reckoned with. Regardless of what they’re doing, it’s the performers’ geniality that will keep you in your seat.

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