A very wealthy man is carrying on an adulterous affair in the shrubs of his meticulously groomed, enormous garden with his (equally overprivileged) neighbor’s wife; the man’s wife has found out about the affair, and has decided to pretend he is invisible on the very day that his old college buddy is coming to woo him to stand for election as an MP and the estate is hosting its annual Spring “fete” and (for reasons that are never fully explained) a French cinema actress has been invited to a very froufrou luncheon, all while the daughter of the one couple and son of the other are in full adolescent confusion about their feelings for one another and the downstairs “staff” are embroiled in their own confusing and oh-so-quirky sexual/marital relationships, all of which above is revealed during the setup for and duration of (in the House) the luncheon and (in the Garden) the (predictably rained out) “fete.”
And we’re supposed to care about this because….?
Mainly because of the conceit of this pair of plays, which happen simultaneously, in two theaters, and fit together like a puzzle–the offstage action of the one play is the onstage action of the other, and as characters leave one they enter the other, moving in and out of each other’s stories as they move from House to Garden and vice versa. A helpful program note tells us that Ayckbourn was experimenting here with the notion that “we’re all walk-on players in other people’s lives” but watching these two plays I was less caught by that thematic thread (as intriguing as it is) than struck by the resilience and tenaciousness of the Upstairs/Downstairs premise in British playwriting: although you must see the plays on two different nights–and thus retroactively fit the missing pieces together–the whole adds up to a fairly conventional glimpse into the lives of the über-rich who farcically misbehave and the earthy, lovable underlings who keep things ticking in spite of (or in some cases in enablement of) the incompetence of their employers.
The technical trick of the play is fun, and provides for some nifty moments of recognition when you go to see the second play and realize what must have just happened in the first (I don’t think it matters what order you see the plays in). I was reminded of Noises Off, which similarly shows what is happening onstage after we’ve seen the chaos during the same scene backstage. But where Noises Off is unquestionably a laugh-out-loud slapstick comedy, House and Garden don’t quite seem to know what they are. At times the story wants to be a frolic of a sex farce, at others it feels like a preachy melodrama on the vagaries of the human heart, and at its worst moments it descends into the territory of sitcoms about eccentric country Brits (think Keeping Up Appearances or The Vicar at Dibley).
This problem is particularly acute in House, which centers on the bitter breakup of the marriage between Teddy Platt, the wealthy adulterer (played by Martin Giles) and his fed up wife Trish (played with utter believability by Helena Ruoti), and the PICT production struggles to hit the right tone. The opening is slow and weighted down with exposition, and although the actors are working in British dialect (some more consistently than others), they fail to capture the arch sensibility that is the essence of British humor. Moreover, as the play progresses, its ostensibly farcical scenes are undermined by a number of clunky staging choices that rob the action of both credibility and surprise. I’m not one to demand realism of farce, mind you, but the moment the cook Izzie (played with a nice comic touch by Mary Rawson) puts a tray of hors d’oeuvres on the sofa, I’m ready for someone to sit on it (duh!); so when Teddy then not only paces back and forth in front of the couch but stands behind the couch where he has a full view of the tray right in front of him before he then –oops! — sits on it….well, I apologize for being a grouch, but I’m not only not laughing, I’m insulted. House does start to rev up in the second scene with the arrival of the French actress (played by Nike Doukas)–the most delightful scene in the play occurs just after her arrival, when all of the characters suddenly begin conversing in French–but while the pace of the play picks up, the production keeps shifting registers, until in the end it disappointingly devolves into a fairly smarmy soap opera.
Garden is the lighter of the two plays, and director Melissa Hill Grande has found a more consistent comedic tone; the staging is cleaner and more believable, and the timing of the comic dialogue more frequently hits its mark. Garden is by far the more successful in terms of delivering on laughs, but it also feels looser in structure, as if Ayckbourn had to fill space while waiting for one of the characters from the other play to be free to enter the scene. (I saw House first, so this might have been an impression a viewer would have had of whichever play she saw second). The production manages to pull off some very silly moments (a crazy woman popping out from behind bushes, a beribboned Morris dance, a trapping in a tent, the sudden phallic spurting of a fountain) without embarrassment, but it ends with an unexpected (and I’m not sure fully earned) wistfulness.
Even though the tone wasn’t always quite on the mark, House and Garden are in nearly every other way very solid. Gianni Downs’s lovely scenic design conjures the grandness and staidness of the Platt estate, and the costumes by Jen Sturm (with assistance from Steve Buechler) establish character and class status well. The cast is strong, with particularly fine performances from David Bryan Jackson as the hapless cuckolded neighbor Giles, Leo Marks as the cool and cynical Gavin Ryng-Mayne, Sean Mellott as Jake, Giles’s lovestruck son, and Nike Doukas–who was, miraculously, completely comprehensible even though she spoke only French–as the film actress Lucille Cadeau. The lighting and sound design (Chris Popowich, Cindy Limauro, and Zach Moore) are very fine; I particularly loved the original music played during the interlude (a combination of chamber string music with a rock/synthesizer beat).
But above all, the technical achievement of the PICT production team–the directors, designers, actors, production managers, and, particularly, the stage managers–in pulling off the complicated task of knitting these two plays together cannot be overstated: it’s only during the curtain call–when (for the first time in the evening) an actor is left to improvise while waiting for the next set of players to arrive from the other house to take their bows–that we become fully aware of just how seamlessly and professionally PICT has put this tricky theatrical puzzle together for us.