Plano — Prolific British playwright Alan Ayckbourn loves a good puzzle. Over the decades he’s given directors, designers and actors numerous challenges—some might call them gimmicks, but they're usually smarter than that word implies.
For instance, 1999’s House & Garden consists of two separate but connected plays performed simultaneously in nearby theaters with the same cast running between the theaters; the audience has to see them separately. The three plays of The Norman Conquests trilogy can be seen in any order, which is remarkably difficult to pull off from a writing standpoint. Man of the Moment (1988) requires an onstage swimming pool deep enough for adults to be thrown in without banging their heads (Stage West actually pulled that one off). But maybe his most clever is 1969’s How the Other Half Loves.
It might be one of his more produced plays on this side of the pond, because audiences love its central conceit, which Theatre Britain handles admirably.
There are three married couples, connected by the fact that the three men work for the same firm: The middle-aged and more successful Fosters, Fiona (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt) and Frank (Michael McNiel); the young parents of a newborn, the Phillips, Teresa (Sky Williams) and Bob (Bryan Brooks); and the caught-in-the-crosshairs Featherstones, Mary (Robin Clayton) and William (Robert San Juan). Two people from each of those first two couples are having an affair, when leads to the kind of well-plotted mix-ups at which British writers excel. Plus, those accents make everything funnier, to us. (I wonder if the Brits say that about, say, Southern Americans or Texans or Minnesotans.)
The gag here is that the set is a single unit that incorporates both the Fosters’ and Phillips’ homes—made to look as one but clearly different. The floor mixes the styles/patterns of both homes, and the dining table has to look like is in the styles of both homes, but it’s still one table.
The actors can only use the appropriate property in each space, as the scenes are written so we get a few lines of dialogue from one couple, and then more from the other, without them acknowledging each other for most of the play. You know, because they're in different homes.
It's not as confusing as it sounds.
Set designer Darryl P. Clement ably handles the challenges: The Fosters’ higher end dining table cuts through the middle of the Phillips’ cheaper, rounder one. The Phillips’ areas are strewn with baby toys and accessories. And the sofa brings together two different fabrics and patterns; the Fosters’ sofa takes up two of the seats, and the Phillips have the end section. I’m guessing this probably works better in an in-the-round situation, with the audience sitting above the stage so they can see the details—which is what happens in the Cox Building Playhouse in Plano. (Theatre Three, which has the same configuration, did it successfully years ago.) A raked stage in a proscenium theater would work, too.
When the Featherstones have dinner with each of the other couples—in one scene that happens over two nights—timing has to be perfect. It’s the funniest scene, as Mary and William swivel in their chairs to react to their hosts in either place. One mistake in timing could wreck it all, but that didn’t happen at the performance reviewed, thanks to San Juan and especially Clayton.
Directed by Sue Birch, the accents are spot-on (Birch, the TB founder, is British and has served as dialect coach for a number of England-set productions around town). In performance, the women fare better than the men. Williams and Pyeatt are both effortless in their verbal and physical timing. But at the performance reviewed, the overall effect wasn’t quite as snappy as it could have been—not the fault of the women.
Still, Ayckbourn’s brand of funny—most would call this is farce, although he considers his 1979 play Taking Steps his only true farce—when it looks and sounds this swell, is always good for what ails you.
The solution to this puzzle: laughter.