Fort Worth — Three bedrooms, four couples, and one long, long night: Stage West opens its 36th season with Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce, which has a fast and funny second act—but you’ll need to be patient with Act One to get there.
Perhaps it’s a theatrical been there/done that problem: since Ayckbourn wrote this 1975 play, audiences have had oodles of TV shows and movies that take the same sort of comic, frank look at the innards of connubial bliss—you know, marriage. Whatever the reason, this production, directed by Jim Covault, doesn’t easily draw us in, despite the game antics of a fine cast. After intermission, though, things feel better. Ayckbourn picks up the pace, whirling us through shorter, crisper scenes (one scene in the play is just a single, desperate word long) and toward a kind of resolution for these couples—some of them shaken to the core by the night, others only slightly rumpled in that “carry on” British way.
Here’s the sitch: Newlyweds Malcolm and Kate (Mitchell Stephens and Audrey Ahern) are throwing a housewarming party. Among the invited are Trevor and Susannah (John Forkner and Allison Pistorius). Kate discovers that Malcolm has also asked Nick and Jan (Jeff Wittekiend and Ashlee Elizabeth Bashore) to come. She senses a disturbance in the Force—and a major threat to her party. Trevor and Susannah aren’t shy about fighting in public—and they fight all the time, frequently over Trevor’s old girlfriends; Susannah is particularly jealous of Jan. Making things worse, Jan turns up alone (and irritatingly blonde) at the party: husband Nick is in bed with a bad back. The fourth couple is older: Trevor’s parents Ernest and Delia (Ray Gestaut and Georgia Clinton) are a long-married pair seen getting ready for an anniversary dinner and then after, preparing for bed.
It all happens on a well-turned-out tri-partite set (also by Covault) with the comfortably detailed and settled room of older couple Ernest/Delia filling center stage, and the minimalist (they haven’t “accumulated” yet—their marriages are young) bedrooms of Malcolm/Kate and Nick/Jan side splitting the downstage.
“I destroy everything,” wails Trevor, and he’s right. He and the insecure Susannah are the free radicals of the night, bouncing into all the other couples’ bedrooms and leaving uproar and uncertainty behind. They travel separately for much of the night, doubling the damage they do. “Sorry!” says Trevor again and again—sorry, sorry, sorry. And no matter where she is, Susannah finds a mirror and talks herself through the harrowing minutes: “I am a confident person. People find me attractive. There is nothing to be frightened of.”
Gestaut and Clinton’s portrayal of the older generation starts slow, but builds to a pitch of delirious reality. This couple’s everyday banter—about everything from tipping waiters to the “damp patch” on their walls, to the “wicked” idea of eating a fishy late-night snack in the B-E-D—sneaks up on us, suddenly making us know how funny our own bedroom conversations might be if someone put them up onstage. Likewise Stephens and Ahern as the happy young homeowners Malcolm and Kate: they’re the “new and shiny” portrait of a marriage, teasing, flirting, hiding each other’s shoes, and finding marital fun in every moment—at least, until Trevor comes around. As his party unravels, Stephens is at first grim, collecting the coats of departing guests, and then almost unhinged—his “stop it stop it right now” as he tries to break up the battling Trevor and Susannah ends in a staccato squeak.
Wittekiend as Nick makes his Stage West debut in a role that doesn’t give him much range—of motion, that is: he spends the entire show in bed, or fallen out of it. But he eventually gets this role on its feet, giving us a Nick who uses quiet British snark to cope with volatile wife Jan. And as Jan, Bashore’s gritted-teeth bedside manner amuses—she’s the least sympathetic nurse ever. Trevor, of course, tries to make things worse by coming to apologize for kissing Jan at the party. “Quite all right. See you again soon,” says Nick, returning to his novel and deflating Trevor’s hopes for drama.
Forkner (also debuting at Stage West) and Pistorius generate appropriate heat and confusion as they wander through the plot—though Forkner plays his first scene in such a heated state you aren’t sure he has anywhere more intense to go. This couple doesn’t have much chemistry at the start (they’re about halfway to divorce court), but they end in a better place—though we’re allowed to wonder how long they can stay there. Forkner’s take on Trevor leaves us guessing: is Trevor the Destroyer doing any of this on purpose, or is he as emotionally clueless as he seems? And Pistorious, whose Susannah seems “sweet, but dim” to her mother-in-law Delia, ends up with the night’s most complex moment onstage, one that makes us remember that in any kind of marriage, happy or not, we are still in an essential way alone.