Simply put, the plot involves two couples wherein an employee has an affair with his boss's wife. Fiona Foster (Laura Drake) is the wayward upper-class wife. Staying out until 2 a.m. and leaving the car in the flower bed, she kindles the suspicions of her sweetly bumbling husband, Frank (Michael Santo). Sardonic Lothario Bob Phillips (John Walcutt), who works for Frank, is the cause. Fiona's desperate phone calls trigger concern by Bob's wife, Teresa (Juliet Pritner).
The two lovers invoke a third couple, William and Mary Featherstone (Michael Lewis and Katie McFadzen), as alibis for their whereabouts, which, of course, really gets the comedic ball rolling. The improvised coverup quickly falls apart as the unsuspecting William and Mary interact with the other two couples over dinner.
The play takes place in the Fosters' and Phillipses' living rooms. Ayckbourn's very smart gimmick is that the action occurs simultaneously, side-by-side. By violating our sense of exclusive space for each story line, Ayckbourn opens up the possibilities for double-entendres, cross-dialogue and inspired silliness. He helps us understand this onstage duality by immediately having the characters engage in phone conversations standing next to each other, and yet, dramatically, in different rooms.
Scenic designer Kent Dorsey helps us suss out this initially bewildering visual complexity by handily combining and contrasting the two rooms. The Fosters' formal columned entryway, decorated with framed paintings, stands adjacent to the Phillipses' funky doorway with its Beatles posters. Even the furniture is divided, with one end of the couch matching the Fosters' stately elegant tastes, while the other end reflects the Phillipses' more garish, plebian preferences.
Director Andrew Traister has chosen to set the play in 1969 London, contemporaneous to when the work actually premiered. However, there is little in Ayckbourn's script that inherently places it in any one time period. Thus the '60s spin is created with sight and sound rather than dialogue, as in the audio montage of British invasion bands such as Herman's Hermits, the Who and, of course, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. To further enhance the mood, even the pre-performance request to the audience to turn off their cell phones and pagers is delivered in a groovy, nasally George Harrison-like voice.
As cuckolded husband Frank Foster, actor Michael Santo turns in a splendid, measured-but-manic performance. Last seen here as Einstein in ATC's Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Saanto gives the kind of solid stiff-upper-lip anchoring that Traister's frenetic staging requires. Santo gives credibility to the cascading situations his character creates, as good intentions are constantly undermined by his mistakenly thinking he understands what is going on. Of course, only the audience really knows everything, making Santo's nonplussed portrayal all the more delicious.
Similarly, John Walcutt completely succeeds as Bob. He has many of the best lines in the play, his biting sarcasm tempered by the richness of Ayckbourn's language for the character. Walcutt's breezy delivery balances his character's cynical selfishness with his hilariously brilliant turns of phrase.
While Laura Drake, Juliet Pritner and Michael Lewis all turn in fine performances, the real standout is Katie McFadzen as mousy Mary Featherstone. While a member of Childsplay's acting ensemble for the past eight years, McFadzen appears to have been honing her sense of physical comedy to a fine point. Here she earns some of the biggest laughs in the production with her various expressions and gestures, eventually devolving to full slapstick. Despite being peripheral to the plot, her character has the most development and her emergence and triumph is greeted with cheers. McFadzen gives a disciplined performance, never crowding her fellow actors, but often going over the top for a few moments, then vanishing back into the ensemble. If her work here is any indication, McFadzen has real potential as a comedic actress of the highest standard.
Alan Ayckbourn is England's most prolific playwright and is reputed to be the most frequently performed writer after Shakespeare. In Tucson, his works are more likely to run at Live Theatre Workshop, where they have been a regular and valuable feature of that company's repertoire.
This ATC production is a welcome and wholly successful version. Director Traister's complex staging of parallel action in two households simultaneously is astutely timed and tightly choreographed. The cast turns in an ensemble performance that is coherent and intelligent throughout. The play is smart and engaging without being weighty. Ayckbourn says that he wants "to persuade people that theater can be fun." ATC's How the Other Half Loves makes his point perfectly.
Arizona Theatre Company presents How the Other Half Loves at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave., through Saturday, March 17. Evening performance times vary Tuesdays through Sundays, with additional matinee performances on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Ticket prices range from $22 to $35, with discounts for seniors, students and military personnel. Half-price rush tickets go on sale at the box office one hour before each performance, subject to availability. For more information or to charge tickets by phone, call 622-2823.