Good farce is a machine for the release of comic energy. Like a Rube Goldberg contraption, it appears ramshackle, but that only disguises its unexpected efficiency. In "Taking Steps," Alan Ayckbourn shows he has mastered this bizarre branch of engineering.
At its title makes clear, Ayckbourn's "Taking Steps," which appears to be about a group of English people bumbling through some far-fetched situations, is really about the way people climb stairs. Let me be a little more precise. If you look at "Taking Steps" as a play, it may seem a bit thin. If, however, you regard it as a ballet, it takes on great significance.
As a play, it has no more content than any farce does - or should. It is set in a British suburban home with three floors, on which a variety of people who are not supposed to be sleeping there, needless to say, are. The absurd things that happen to them are conceived with a meticulousness that defies logic or sense. That, after all, is what farce is.
What makes "Taking Steps" ingenious is that it was written to be performed in the round, which means that all three floors must occupy the same space. The way you know where the characters are is by their pantomiming climbing stairs around the set and by the artful lighting of the space.
Here is where the choreographic element enters. Each character "climbs" the stairs in a distinctive way. Jane Summerhays, who plays a pretentious but trashy dancer, highsteps up and down like a spunky pony. Her thoroughly dreary husband clumps his way in both directions. A muddleheaded young lawyer, still in many ways a schoolboy, takes the stairs hopping sideways.
At one point three characters go up the stairs together, and the effect - clumsy bu intricately coordinated - would surely have delighted the choreographer of "Gaite Parisienne."
Christopher Benjamin, the original Vincent Crummles in "Nicholas Nickleby" has been imported to play the dreary husband, and he does it superlatively, able to invest even a nonword like "neeeeah" with poetry and grave import. Summerhays is suitably manic as the dancer, Bill Buell makes whininess musical as a real-estate man, and Spike McClure, whose voice sounds as if he's perpetually gargling, is a standout as the befuddled young lawyer. Jonathan Hogan and Pippa Pearthree handle less ebullient roles ably.
People unwillingly leading lives of quiet desperation and making a rather impolite noise about it; that is the comic essence of Alan Ayckbourn, Britain's most popular and prolific playwright.
Such savagely comic horror should surely have a universal appeal. Yet somehow, despite the occasional transatlantic success, Ayckbourn has yet to find a secure place in the hearts of the American audience, although he is often, ironically enough, enthusiastically received by American critics.
Now he might be a playwright whose New York time has belatedly arrived - or at least whose month in court has finally come.
After an absence from our major stages for some years, Ayckbourn has now returned with a double-whammy. Last week the Manhattan Theater Club offered his "Absent Friends" (1974) and last night the Circle in the Square, Uptown completed the double with his 1979 farce, "Taking Steps."
But neither play is recent, and, more unfortunately, neither play is typical of the later Ayckbourn at his considerable best.
The value, the special truth, of Ayckbourn's mature comedy is its seriousness. It is neither moralistic nor particularly satirical, but there is a pain to Ayckbourn's always-sprained funny bone that evokes almost as much sympathy as it does laughter. And it evokes plenty of laughter.
There is laughter nearly (not quite) galore in "Taking Steps," one of the playwright's few excursions into pure farce, and technically perhaps his trickiest play since his early work - once seen inadequately on Broadway - "How the Other Half Loves." But real character, genuine feeling and the compassion of truth are not so much missing as avoided.
The trick is in the location. The play is set on three floors (or two floors and an attic) of a decaying English country mansion - which, as the play was designed to be staged in the round and resolutely on one level, involves some pretty class sleight of geography. The idea - once you are acclimatized to the device, works beautifully and funnily.
A bored wife is about to leave her rich husband, and calls in her brother to assist. The brother, a reluctant accessory, is trying to win back his fiancee, who on their wedding day deserted him for a Cypriot waiter, and was later picked up by police, suspected of soliciting.
The uxorious husband, meanwhile, is trying to buy the house (it is said to be haunted, by the way, with the surprisingly tangible ghost of a young whore) from a crooked builder with the mildly ineffectual help of a gormless lawyer's assistant.
The complications that ensue - largely concerned with muddled beds and tangled motives - are generously accentuated by the action taking place on three levels all in the same playing space.
And, yes, Ayckbourn's quiet desperation is certainly present - although not with the urgency of his later plays. As a result, "Taking Steps," while funny, is also silly, an insubstantial joke that takes too long in the telling.
The performances are all good - and Christopher Benjamin, at least, is excellent - but the staging by the British director, Alan Strachan, an old and distinguished Ayckbourn hand, proves unexpectedly lethargic.
Benjamin, from Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company, is marvelously bleary, boozy and bonhomous as the rich and bibulous husband, trying to press drinks on all and sundry while keeping his adored but moody dancer-wife moderately content.
As that wayward wife, Jane Summerhays produces a nicely scatty manner. Jonathan Hogan is impressively, and properly, tedious as her soporific brother, Pippa Pearthree (in a typical Ayckbourn characterization) is modestly nutty as the fiancee, and while Bill Buell is not quite sufficiently unctuous as the builder, Spike McClure has some inspired moments as the hapless but happy lawyer's clerk.
For bedroom farce, "Taking Steps" is a superior example. But the staging and performance are not so dizzily perfect that its technique is transformed into the magic of art. Not for a moment does it transcend the limitations of the genre.
This won't do any harm to Ayckbourn's still comparatively spotty New York reputation. But it is not going to set the Hudson on fire.
A true man of the theater always makes a virtue of necessity, and that's what Alan Ayckbourn did when he wrote "Taking Steps" in 1979. In this work, the dramatist and director wanted to concoct a low farce of the door-slamming school -- the play is an homage to Ben Travers, the between-the-wars master of British farce -- but as always, Mr. Ayckbourn needed to tailor his grand plan to fit his home company in Scarborough, England, the Stephen Joseph Theater in the Round. How do you send actors popping in and out of rapidly slamming doors when they are always in full view of the spectators ringing an arena stage?
Mr. Ayckbourn's ingenious solution was to substitute floors for doors. In "Taking Steps," the sitting room, master bedroom and attic of a creaky English mansion are all placed side by side at ground level, with the "steps" between each of the three floors represented by flat carpeted paths on which the frantic characters mime their mad dashes up and down stairs. At the Circle in the Square, where the Broadway revival of "Taking Steps" opened last night, Mr. Ayckbourn's Scarborough-inspired scheme proves a trans-Atlantic godsend as well. For once, a problematic New York playhouse can house a script expressly conceived for its unorthodox topography.
To assure the authenticity of the staging, Circle in the Square has hired Alan Strachan, a longtime Ayckbourn associate, to direct the production. Though the results prove far less consistently uproarious than the premise and author promise, "Taking Steps" delivers enough spurts of frivolous pleasure to serve as an amusing, if plainly lesser, companion piece to "Absent Friends," the 1974 Ayckbourn comedy that is coincidentally in residence at the Manhattan Theater Club.
If anything, these two plays from the 1970's illustrate the opposite poles of the Ayckbourn esthetic personality that would merge seamlessly a decade later in culminating works like "A Small Family Business" and "The Revengers' Comedies." As "Absent Friends" is a dark piece exploring disappointed suburban lives, so "Taking Steps" is sheer froth, more intent on exploring the mechanics of theater than the workings of the heart. The two plays do share a middle-class milieu and some incidents -- both send a sobbing, betrayed spouse farcically up a staircase, for instance -- but "Taking Steps" never delves into its characters' psychological mishaps; instead, it exploits them for plot twists and gags. Farce is too ruthless a form to allow for the leisure of introspection.
Mr. Ayckbourn's farce is prompted not only by its clever theatrical gimmick, which sometimes pays off by allowing three concurrent scenes to crisscross the stage at once, but also by the second, thematic meaning of its title: The evening begins when Elizabeth (Jane Summerhays), a former go-go dancer in television commercials, takes a step toward freedom by running away from her suffocating husband of three and a half months, a bucket magnate named Roland (Christopher Benjamin). And Elizabeth is not the only character taking steps to break out of her constricted existence. Her brother Mark (Jonathan Hogan) is trying both to get Roland to finance a fishing shop that is his life's dream and to reclaim the fiancee (Pippa Pearthree) who ran away on their wedding day with a waiter from the local Boar's Head pub.
To multiply the exits and entrances exponentially, Mr. Ayckbourn has also thrown in a ghost -- Elizabeth and Roland's home is a supposedly haunted former brothel -- and such non-paranormal phenomena as a scheming local builder in black motorcycle gear (Bill Buell), a nerdy young lawyer overdue for romantic adventure (Spike McClure), a strategically placed bottle of sleeping pills, a clamorous thunderstorm and a couple of unsigned letters that may or may not be suicide notes. In the fewer than 24 hours in which the action unfolds, the characters unwittingly ricochet between death and life almost as often as they bounce from bed to bed and floor to floor.
Once Mr. Ayckbourn cranks up all his machinery -- which takes roughly half of a nearly 90-minute first act -- "Taking Steps" reaches a mirthful plateau, where it remains until the middle of Act II, at which point the laughter is cooled by the laborious tying up of the many loose ends. Perhaps some of the evening's strained and contrived passages would be more entertaining with a cast that sharpened the eccentricities that define the characters. In London, Mr. Strachan has often been responsible for directing the replacement casts in Mr. Ayckbourn's long-running hits, and, curiously, much of his New York company for "Taking Steps" has a second-team feel to it. This show could use a Nathan Lane or two.
No one is incompetent, but virtually every performance could be more polished and, in the later reconciliation scenes, less sentimental. Mr. Buell and Mr. McClure rely much too heavily on cartoon voices that are lazy substitutes for full-throttle comic invention. Ms. Summerhays never finds the daffy physical burlesque in Elizabeth's recidivist bursts of go-go dancing, and Ms. Pearthree's rebellious fiancee is rarely either as outrageous or pathetically lost as her punk costume and makeup suggest. The agreeable Mr. Hogan, a good actor not known as a farceur, hasn't quite located the forlorn comic spirit of an archetypal Ayckbourn loser, a man so dull that he need only begin talking about his deepest feelings to send his nearest and dearest nodding off.
The one exception to the workmanlike performance level -- and a big one, happily -- is Mr. Benjamin, an imported English actor whom New York audiences may recall from his Royal Shakespeare Company visits as Crummles in the original "Nicholas Nickleby" and as Dogberry in the Derek Jacobi-Sinead Cusack "Much Ado About Nothing." His bucket tycoon is a riotous throwback to the inflated, middle-aged, middle-class twits played by Terry-Thomas and company in the old Ealing film comedies of the 1950's. Pompous and impeccably clubby in the suburban manner, Mr. Benjamin's Roland gradually escalates his red-faced drunken boorishness until finally even his nose seems to have thickened along with his voice. He's a self-satisfied fool riding for a fall -- and he takes it, in a performance that is the evening's most sustained vindication of Mr. Ayckbourn's vision of hysteria in the round.