Hell's Kitchen

Arizona Repertory Theatre serves up food for thought.

It doesn't take much contact with British "cuisine" to teach you that the most unsavory things happen in English kitchens. Indeed, there's something nasty in the kitchens of Alan Ayckbourn's play Absurd Person Singular, but it's not just the crud one character scrapes out of an oven. Three overcooked couples repeatedly boil over in the comedy, presented by the Arizona Repertory Theatre.

This University of Arizona production ignites several delightful little grease fires, without quite managing the total conflagration Ayckbourn invites. Opening night last week simmered blandly a few too many times, yet overall the production serves a hearty portion of a surprisingly bitter confection.

Set around 1972, when the show was first produced, Absurd Person Singular follows the travails of three couples through Christmas parties over the course of three years.

The first act is set in the kitchen of Sidney and Jane Hopcroft (Kerry Watterson and Laura Michelle Miotke), a firmly middle-class couple who may rise through the social strata if Sidney can pull off some business deals that involve their party guests: banker Ronald Brewster-Wright and his wife, Marion (Nathan Gross and Monica Mason), and architect Geoffrey Jackson and his wife, Eva (Sean Kehoe and Liz Laird).

The Hopcrofts seem decent folk, even if Sidney does prove a bit overbearing and Jane is a ridiculously compulsive cleaner. It's all a matter of nerves, no doubt, and their little missteps eventually cascade into utter disaster, at least for Jane.

Not that the guests notice, much. They're too wrapped up in their own foibles. Ronald is hopelessly obtuse, Marion is chronically drunk, Eva's eccentricity verges on madness, and Geoffrey is an inveterate womanizer. (He later asks, in a moment of self-pity and self-justification, "Do you think I enjoy living out my life like some sort of sexual Flying Dutchman?")

The second act moves from the Hopcrofts' gleaming, timeless kitchen to the Jacksons' alarmingly fashionable atrocity, complete with the horrid orange appliances popular 30 years ago; one quickly appreciates the comparative subtlety of avocado. Subtlety is nowhere to be found, though, as the distraught Eva's mute attempts to commit suicide are repeatedly but accidentally thwarted by the other characters' spontaneous involvement in home maintenance projects.

The second act rises to farcical heights, but the third descends to the darkest depths--well, murkiest shallows--of the English soul. As Sidney's power has increased, so has the misery of the other couples, and the last act pokes through the marital and social ruins. It's set in the Brewster-Wright kitchen, a homey country décor where people sit shivering because the heat's been off for weeks--reflecting the state of Ronald and Marion's marriage. Eva has recovered her wits, but Geoffrey has lost his reputation. In the end it is Sidney who literally calls the dance, evoking, thanks to director Brent Gibbs and lighting designer Jeff Warburton, nothing less than the demon Chernabog near the end of Disney's Fantasia.

Absurd Person Singular is both more farcical and more desolate than some of Ayckbourn's other popular plays, notably the Norman Conquests trilogy (which Live Theatre Workshop has been working its way through at long intervals). The UA production, quivering across Sally R. Day's perfect sets, succeeds best when Ayckbourn pushes the hardest in one direction or the other.

The most consistently fine performances come from the cast's three women, whose antics barely conceal their characters' loneliness and self-loathing. For Miotke, Jane's determined industry and cheer are the only things that keep her going through a life of self-consciousness and disappointment. As Eva, Laird spends Act 2 mute in a bathrobe and blond fright wig, looking for all the world like a nihilistic Harpo Marx, but almost finds dignity in defeat later in the play. Mason has less to work with as the inebriated Marion, but she manages a nicely ambiguous delivery of some of the play's best zingers. (Feigning interest in the settings on the Hopcrofts' new washing machine, she exclaims, "White ... coloreds--my God, it's apartheid!")

Among the men, Watterson handles Sidney's evolution with particular finesse. Initially nervous and likable, his Sidney almost immediately reveals a subtle streak of domineering impatience that will gradually emerge as his defining trait. Gross, on the other hand, is trapped in a character--Ronald--who must remain oblivious and bland straight to the end, and can't quite muster a multi-dimensional portrayal. Kehoe makes the mistake of playing Geoffrey as a nice enough Everyman with an unfortunately indiscriminate sexual appetite, missing some of the character's essential preening caddishness.

This may all settle over the course of the play's run, which will pick up again in September. Meanwhile, the least one can say about this production of Absurd Person Singular is the most one can say about a plate of English food: It gives you something to chew on.

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