Wednesday, July 2, 2014

How the Other Half Loves

Photo by Daniel Region

How the Other Half Loves
Ghent Playhouse
6 Town Hall Place
            Watching Alan Ayckbourn’s play, How the Other Half Loves, is a little like watching a gold medal table tennis doubles match. Dialogue pings and pongs back and forth between the characters. Actors cross above and below each other barely avoiding a collision. Plot lines swirl and tangle themselves as time and space meet over dinner.  It’s a biting comment on marriage, workplace ethics and class.
And it’s funny— very funny. 
Premiered in 1969, the play follows three couples as they try to sort out their marriages and further their careers. Frank Foster (Sky Vogel who doubles quite ably as director) employs Bob Phillips (Todd Hamilton) who has had a one-night stand with Fiona Foster (Prudence Theriault). Bob’s wife, Teresa (Christina Smith) is a frustrated mother with a wild offstage child. In an attempt to conceal their affair, Bob and Fiona implicate another couple–the Detweilers (the Featherstones in the original production).  William Detweiler has recently been hired by Frank.  Detweiler’s wife, Mary, is a shy and retiring woman who is being trained by William to be a good “businessman’s wife.”
Just to add a bit of zest to the mess, Ayckbourn has staged the action, which takes place simultaneously in two separate houses, on the same set. Indeed, he has two dinner parties taking place on two different nights at one table in the same scene.
If you are finding it difficult to follow the synopsis, imagine the skill it takes to enact it.  It’s a little like tossing a hot potato back and forth while dancing a complicated figure as you speak your lines at precisely the right time and pitch. All the while making sure you’re funny and engaging as well as convincing.  Nor is it just the actors who have to be on their toes. Lighting, especially during the dinner party scene, plays a major role in creating both the illusion of separation and a sense of unity throughout the piece.
After having watched several YouTube videos from bigger theaters’ stagings of Ayckbourn’s famous dinner scene, I have to say that the Ghent Players and their crew rocked it solid.
In particular, Sam Reilly and Amber Herrick, as the Detweilers, showed great skill in handling the speedy transitions required of them. Christina Smith and Todd Hamilton both did a wonderful job of creating drunken chaos while Prudence Theriualt made her dinner party chilly. Throughout the play, Sky Vogel’s Frank, the maestro of misunderstanding, does a great job of speeding up or slowing down the action.  His performance helped to center the maelstrom.  Major credit must go to lighting designer Ben Heyman whose use of a chandelier/hanging dining room light fixture helped the audience track what was going on.  His lightboard must have been sizzling from the rapid changes!
Set designers and decorators (Ben Heyman, Sky Vogel, Todd Hamilton & Nancy Hammell) did well given the space constraints. I think that the contrast between the uptight Foster’s upper/middle class home and the slovenly white-collar house of the Phillips could have been made more obvious. Joanne Maurere’s costumes evoked the polyester-era well though again I felt that the class divisions were not quite strong enough.
One major point of confusion for me comes from a note in the program stating that the play is taking place in the present.  There is a conversation between Frank and Teresa in which Teresa places the action as happening in the early 1980s. The clothing and props reminded me of the ‘70s while the furnishings were much earlier.  This led me to wonder about the accuracy of Ayckbourn’s comment that the play needs to be placed in 1969 and being British, I assume he would prefer a British setting.  Stereotypes help a writer take short cuts so it is much easier to imagine the Fosters as the stereotypical distracted British lord and self-important lady of the manor.  The Phillips’ drunken brawls and the Detweilers’ middle class modest and fearful demeanor have been BBC fodder for decades.  Too, English accents designate class better than American leaving American producers with the challenge of showing class through design elements rather than language.
But I’m not sure if How the Other Half Loves would have been more poignant if there had been greater class delineation between the couples.  Ultimately the writing is so funny and the action so quick that one is never given a chance to experience the pathos of affairs, poor communication, sycophancy, wild children, drunkenness and manipulative spouses.  I suppose pacing the play differently would give the audience a chance to think about what is happening and to identify with one or more of the characters and situations.  But then it would become what I was afraid it was going to be: one of those terribly pedantic, stilted, depressing domestic tragedies in which clever people say nasty things about nothing in particular.
Happily, the Ghent Playhouse met the challenge well and I had a wonderful time.  I laughed a lot.  And I came away feeling very proud of my community theater.   Well done!

And… please be sure to buy raffle tickets for the 50/50 drawing!  For a mere pittance you get a chance to bring home half of all they collect— the other half going to the theater.  

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