|The Cast of Absurd Person Singular
Absurd Person Singular, Alan Ayckbourn’s play about English manners directed by Corey Castle, is a really good laugh, and I have the numbers to prove it. In the seventies’ Broadway production, 374 chuckles, 125 belly laughs, and five “roll-em in the aisles,” were counted, for a total of 504 laughs. I didn’t count the laughs in last night’s show, but those numbers sound pretty close. We laughed not only because Ayckbourn’s lines are decidedly funny, but because the actors did such a splendid job of embodying characters who struggle to keep their public mask on while events conspire to show their true, private faces.
We laughed when Jane, an absurdly cheerful housewife who absolutely lives to clean her house, sees suicidal wife Eva with her head in the oven and misinterprets the situation: “I must clean that oven if it kills you.” Jane, played by Lindsay Milner, is extraordinarily believable in a domestic role that most would find foreign today. We laughed when the alcoholic wife, Marion, sprays what she thinks is air freshener but is actually bug spray. She calls the scent “poignant,” like the cologne Jane’s husband (a man desperate for a loan to finance his construction dreams) is wearing.
The underside of all this hilarity is equally well represented. Marion’s character, for example, undergoes a steady deterioration throughout the play and because the play is staged in “theatre in the round,” the 96-person audience in the gloriously, partially restored Rialto theatre can witness her decline up close and personal. When aging Marion, played by Evy Kartus-Solomon, drunkenly cries out, “Who wants to take my picture now?” I wanted to shout out, “I will,” just because Kartus-Solomon made Marion’s pain so, well, poignant, plus I was literally just a couple feet away from her.
Though the play is a comedy, it is a dark one, with a third act that seems to end before its time, and it’s an ending that sat uncomfortably with my theatre mate and me. Why not reverse the second and third act, so that the play ends on a high note? Then I read about that Broadway production where the laugh numbers were collected. The producer of that show wanted to do the exact same thing with the acts, because the number of laughs diminished over the three acts by 40 per cent, but writer Ayckbourn was vehement that no changes could be made. In fact, this was written into the contract. “‘[The] Guild shall not make nor permit others to make any alterations in the text of said Play without the written approval of the Author’; the contract also forbade major changes to the action and structure of the play.”
Ayckbourn was right. Absurd Person Singular is social commentary, and if we laugh more at the end than at the beginning, we’d likely forget much sooner the extent to which people will live a lie in order to improve, maintain or regain their position. It’s this abrupt, less laugh-filled finish that underscores the bleak reality that climbing the social ladder comes with a price tag for everyone. Bravo to Griffin Town Theatre for staging a stellar, thoughtful comedy.