Identity Crisis

Live Theatre Workshop asks, 'Who's your daddy?'

"I have a terror of losing my identity in the middle of the night," jokes Greg as he explains why, first thing in the morning, he sleepily pokes his feet under the bed toward what he hopes will be his familiar slippers. Trouble is, when you're dating Ginny, there's no telling whose slippers you'll find under her bed.

Things are rather suspicious on this particular Sunday morning. There's the inexplicable stockpile of flowers and chocolates around Ginny's London flat. There's the silence on the line when Greg answers the phone. There's Ginny's sudden trip to the country to see her parents, a trip Ginny insists on taking alone.

And there are those slippers under her bed. Let's just say it's lucky that Greg has had other ways of keeping his feet warm.

Greg hightails it out to the country house to which Ginny is headed, arriving before her, hoping to sort things out with her parents. Trouble is, when you're dating Ginny, there's no telling who you'll find living in the house of her "parents." The residents, Philip and Sheila, are having trust issues of their own. Then Greg arrives out of the blue, and chaos ensues when nobody bothers to clarify the antecedents of little words like "him" and "her." It's a case of mistaken identity caused by misuse of anaphoric pronouns. This is nothing that couldn't be cleared up by consulting Fowler's Modern English Usage, but by the end of the day that's not the book these people will be inclined to throw at each other.

Alan Ayckbourn's Relatively Speaking, playing at Live Theatre Workshop, is one of those plays revolving around a misunderstanding that, in real life, would be settled within 60 seconds. But verisimilitude can be comedy's greatest enemy, so we're best off giving in to Ayckbourn's implausibilities.

As conceived by Ayckbourn and directed by Dana Armstrong, the two couples operate in different but intersecting spheres of reality. The young Londoners, Greg and Ginny (Art Almquist and JoDee Ann Rudd), aren't inherently funny; they're just regular people engaged in the witty thrust-and-parry of truth avoidance. The somewhat older country folks, Philip and Sheila (James Mitchell Gooden and Cynthia Jeffery), are more deliberately comic creations.

Philip is the typical bumbling English sexual adventurer alarmed at the thought that he may be a cuckold, and Sheila is the nice but seemingly dim woman who plays along even when she has no idea what's going on.

Jeffery's performance as Sheila is the most interesting and the most difficult in this production; Jeffery gives us a person who must seem to her fellow characters as if she's three pence short of a shilling, while impressing the audience as a rather sly woman beneath her befuddlement.

Gooden plays some variant of Philip every season, and he sets apart his role in Relatively Speaking by being less smug and more vulnerable than usual. But there were moments last weekend when he didn't seem quite fully involved in his character. Yes, Philip's laughter is supposed to be hollow through much of the second act, but Gooden makes us question Philip's sincerity from his very first scene. Nevertheless, Gooden remains great fun to watch.

Almquist and Rudd are equally entertaining. The production's success hinges on the guilelessness and determination Almquist brings to his role, and on Rudd's ability to remain appealing and desirable even when her honesty is a matter of some debate. The two have fine chemistry, and if their first, expository scene drags a bit, that's Ayckbourn's fault.

It's worth the wait for the second scene, when the characters' identity crisis begins. Hilarity ensues, particularly once Philip realizes it's in his best interest to play along as Ginny's father. If the slipper fits, wear it.