Monday, July 18, 2016

Comedies: The Chinese Room, How the Other Half Loves, The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God

Sue Jean Kim, Brían F. O’Byrne, and Carson Elrod in The Chinese Room. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

The Chinese Room by the Irish playwright Michael West, at Williamstown’s Nikos stage, is a sci-fi comedy with serious overtones. Brían F. O’Byrne plays Frank, an inventor of artificial intelligence who discovers that his partner is closing him out of the company they founded together and phasing out some of his creations, “humanoids” like Susannah (Sue Jean Kim), of which Frank keeps the prototype in his house. To preserve the memory that his wife Lily (Laila Robins) is rapidly losing, Frank has transferred it to Susannah. But the combination of Lily’s confusion (she doesn’t remember that she’s at home, and most of the time she doesn’t know who Frank is), the tensions in their marriage that are now being channeled through Susannah’s persona, the bugs in the humanoid model (Susannah keeps faltering and having to be rebooted), and the demands of his little boy, Zack (Elliot Trainor), now exacerbated by his removal from his own company, have turned Frank’s life into chaos. The emissary from Frank’s partner, who arrives to collect the passkey to the system, is a robot known as Daniel (Carson Elrod), and his insistent presence – he’s been programmed not to leave Frank’s house without the item he was sent to retrieve – adds to the mix.

It’s to the credit of the director, James Macdonald (who staged the London premiere of Florian Zeller’s The Father, one of the highlights of last summer’s London season), that the audience is able to follow all these levels of dramatic action. And in fact the more there is going on onstage, the more fun The Chinese Room is, even though some of the plot details either haven’t been worked out satisfactorily or else glided by too quickly for me to make sense of them. I got completely lost in the last section, perhaps partly because the play stops working about half an hour before the end; at that point it feels like a vehicle that continues to plow its way around a track after its wheels have fallen off. And the tonal shifts are clunky, though there’s no reason why West shouldn’t be able to have his cake and eat it too, i.e., dig crazy comedy out of the outré dramatic situation while also making us feel Lily’s despair as everything she knows slips away from her and Frank’s desperation to hold onto her. (We learn at some point that he’s her second husband – that she left his partner, Hal, for him years ago. I assume we’re supposed to think that Hal’s betrayal of Frank is linked to his bitterness over her having chosen Frank over him, but oddly West doesn’t explore that avenue.) In fact, Lily’s emotions are extremely vivid because Robins articulates them so clearly; at times her portrayal of this character reminded me of Bananas in John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves pleading to be taken off the medication that is numbing her out, making it impossible for her to remember her old feelings. The problem is that either West or Macdonald (or both) hasn’t worked out an effective way to get in and out of the serious interludes.

The other problem, surprisingly, is O’Byrne. He’s an actor I’ve seen and admired on stage (in Shining City, Doubt and Frozen, where Robins was one of his co-stars) as well as in the movies (most recently in John Boorman’s Queen and Country). But his performance here is scattered, with physical and vocal choices that feel random. He’s playing a long and treacherously difficult part, and perhaps he simply didn’t have enough rehearsal time to work it through. On the other hand, Kim and Elrod, as the humanoids, are staggeringly good, especially Elrod. In the second act Hal, who is offstage throughout the play, in a hospital bed, hooked up to machines that are keeping him alive, makes an indirect appearance through Daniel, who becomes a conveyance through which he speaks to Frank and Lily. Elrod’s transformation as well as his simultaneous depiction of his boss and the robot capturing his vocal features is on a par with the breathtaking scenes in the movie All of Me where Lily Tomlin’s character gets inside Steve Martin’s and Martin has to register both of them at the same time. Elrod is a busy actor whose work I admired particularly in the David Ives pastiche Lives of the Saints, but this performance is something else again – it’s a tour de force.

Jason Merrells and Jenny Seagrove in How The Other Half Loves. (Photo: Alastair Muir)

I have a dim memory of seeing Alan Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves with Phil Silvers and Sandy Dennis when I was in college and not thinking much of it. It was my first encounter with Ayckbourn, the wizard of British farce, who is mostly famous for writing plays that, like this one, are premised on inventive staging ideas. In How the Other Half Loves, which is currently in revival in London's West End, the set (designed by Julie Godfrey) overlaps the living/dining room areas in two houses so we see the action in both simultaneously. This gimmick was all I remembered from the New York production. When the play is performed well – and in Alan Strachan’s revival, it’s performed brilliantly – it’s not just a gimmick but an “Open sesame!” that enables the six actors to unlock the secret at the heart of any good farce: a combination of lunacy, precision and inspired embroidery that turns the caricaturing of the characters into a series of sonatas.

The two houses belong to Bob and Terry Phillips (Jason Merrells and Tamzin Outhwaite), a squabbling young couple with a troublesome baby we never see, and Bob’s boss Frank Foster (Nicholas Le Prevost) and his wife Fiona (Jenny Seagrove), who, unbeknownst to either of their spouses, has just had a one-night stand with Bob. Frank tells Bob on the phone before work that an accountant named William Featherstone (Matthew Cottle) has just joined their firm, so William’s is the first name that pops into Bob’s head when he’s making up a story for his wife to explain his absence the night before: he claims that he was out drinking with the poor man, who’d just discovered that his wife Mary (Gillian Wright) has been cheating on him. When Bob relays this phony alibi to Fiona during a clandestine phone call, she runs with it, telling Frank that she was out with Mary, consoling her over William’s infidelity. Both their clueless spouses are moved to invite the Featherstones over for dinner. In the second scene in act one, Ayckbourn ups the ante by presenting the two dinner parties, which occur on separate nights, at the same time.

What I mean by embroidery is evidenced most impressively in the performances of Le Prevost as doddering, forgetful Frank (who thinks of himself, ridiculously, as a sage counselor to young people whose marriages have run into trouble) and Wright as Mary, a sweet-natured woman with extreme social terror. These two actors work tiny miracles of rhythm and timing. Seagrove’s portrayal of Fiona spins off her stoic endurance of her husband’s multi-layered insensitivity. Cottle, whom I saw last year in Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors, plays a finicky, paternalistic man who would be insufferable in the hands of just about any other playwright but who is rescued by Ayckbourn’s humor. Outhwaite and Merrells have the most conventional roles: unlike the other four, they get to release their hostility from the beginning. The kicker in their characters is that the hostility turns out to be an aphrodisiac. Ayckbourn’s world is the English middle class, which he’s satirized over the course of seventy-nine plays and nearly sixty years. In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, when he became famous, he used to be referred to as the Neil Simon of English comic playwrights. That’s both a misnomer and a serious underappreciation of his talents.

Kiera Sangster, Natasha Mumba, and André Sills in The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God. (Photo: David Cooper)

The lunchtime piece at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, this summer is an adaptation by Lisa Codrington of an obscure short story by Shaw called The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God. In this wild-card revue sketch, directed by Ravi Jain, the Black Girl (Natasha Mumba), a Christian convert in Africa armed with the Bible her teacher, a missionary nun (Tara Rosling), has given her for her birthday, sets out to try to find God in the hope that He will be able to answer her questions. (She asks so many that the nun, driven to exhaustion and hysteria, has elected to retire to her native England to get away from them.) The Black Girl’s travels permit a raucous cast to cut up, especially Guy Bannerman as the Lord of Hosts, who demands sacrifices; Graeme Somerville as The Almighty, who laughs disdainfully at her relentless queries, and also as Michelangelo, who pays an Asian in a wig and shades (Jonathan Tan) to pose for him on the cross; and Ben Sanders as both Micah the Morasthite and King Solomon. Bannerman is even funnier as GBS himself, who shows up at the top of the show to complain that the playwright has massacred his story and makes an effort to read the preface she omitted aloud to the audience. The whole piece is hilarious, but Shaw’s Brechtian arguments with the actress who’s playing the Black Girl (which they pick up again near the end) and offers witty jabs at his work are my favorite part of the show, and they could hardly have found a cozier or more apt venue. Mumba, in her first season at the Shaw, is a find – she looks like a young Alfred Woodard and has Woodard’s air of somewhat befuddled common sense. Codrington can’t figure out how to end the play: the last episode hobbles toward the fade-out. But it’s one of the high points of this year’s festival, and the actors, who also include André Sills and Kiera Sangster, dance through it gleefully.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies. 

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