THEATER REVIEW: ‘Half’s’ many parts make most of fractured script

HOW THE OTHER HALF LOVES / Ghent Playhouse

BRITISH PLAYWRIGHT Alan Ayckbourn has been prolific and extravagantly successful. I confess to a minority reaction to his oeuvre, especially “How the Other Half Loves”: The man can make a person long for a bit of Chekhov, or Shakespeare, or at least, Oscar Wilde, who manages to make some fun out of a gaggle of trivial, unlikable characters with trivial, unlikable lives.

At Ghent Playhouse, the set–design concept, which has been with the play since its inception in 1969, keeps audience brains a bit engaged during a deadly first act. The set is a scrap of play-making wit executed here by Tom Detwiler. In case you are not already familiar with the idea and you plan to attend the play, I won’t spill the design beans. It helps keep you seated in the theater past Act I.

(“Are you still here?” quipped a fellow audience member following the first act.)

After that, the stage peps up, and the actors lift off Ayckbourn’s payload with better thrust. The play must have seemed much more zingy and sophisticated in the early ’70s, with the sexual revolution still retaining a hint of naughtiness and with unpleasant characters very much in vogue. (Or maybe farce is a very particular skill that even otherwise good actors have trouble effectuating.)

Sky Vogel acts as well as directs. He successfully guides actors around the design concept and believably plays the boss, Frank Foster–in spite of the fact that Aykbourn has made the character seem like an early Alzheimer’s victim who probably couldn’t boss a donkey.

There is often a “spacey” quality in the work of Todd Hamilton. It worked better for him as Rainaldi in “My Cousin Rachel” than as Bob Phillips, a banal and merry adulterer. (The character may remind one that “love” is probably the wrong four-letter word in the title.)

With Bob’s wife, Teresa (a mother who is disgusted with her own disgusting baby), Christina Smith does okay; and Amber Herrick is quite convincing as a fear-fraught young wife.

With threat of exposure pressing Fiona Foster like air in an expanding balloon, Prudence Theriault stares forward, brilliantly cool and silent, while struggling not to pop. Yet, in spite of good moments like that, this actress seems miscast, especially when she is moving about with cutesy bent wrists that even Shirley Temple would abjure.

Over the years, audiences must be utterly grateful for the consistently good work of costumer Joanne Maurer, but not even “the other half’ deserves that green dress on Fiona Foster or the clingy brown velvet on the generous caboose of another character.

It is almost worth enduring Ayckbourn in order to watch actor Sam Reilly. His William Detweiler is priggish and conventional, intelligent, fearful, innocent, intensely sane and afflicted with crazy-nasty Henry-Higgins syndrome. All of that full person is packed into Reilly’s actorly mind-flow along with his movement, his stillness and his body arrangements. Reilly hardly needs the lines.

See “How the Other Half Loves” through April. Look forward to “Grapes of Wrath,” which arrives at the Playhouse in May.

 

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