All farce is a kind of high-wire act, for both writer and performer. But in "A Small Family Business," Alan Ayckbourn, an aerialist of proven distinction, sets himself an unusually tough task.
On the surface the play is farce, though within the limits Ayckbourn sets himself, his characters are never too farfetched to be believable. (In this, of course, he is aided by British life, which, without much prodding, often teeters on the verge of farce.)
But below the surface, "Small Family Business" is also a kind of morality play, in which all of the members of a family are so attached to their toys - cooking equipment for one, sexual paraphernalia for another, CDs for yet another - that they are blithely robbing the family business to finance their hobbies. The patriarch of this brood is blind and dithering, and it is hard not to assume Ayckbourn intends a reference to Olde England.
Between these two poles Ayckbourn skitters effortlessly, keeping an admirable balance between the laughter and the disquieting reality. Only at the very end does the balance falter, when a character on drugs is equated, in terms of spotlights, with the happy family celebrating below - it is as if a jolly symphony ended with a glaring discord, an unnecessary touch I attribute to the direction rather than the writing.
The cast handles its tricky assignments with flair, never making the comedy too broad. Brian Murray brings great comic skill to the role of the son-in-law who is taking over the business and discovers all the termites boring within. As his wife, Jane Karr contributes a droll muddle-headedness and a carefully modulated whine that provide an amusing counterpoint to all the proceedings.
Though the whole cast performs with gusto, I particularly enjoyed Anthony Heald as a crooked private eye, Caroline Lagerfelt as the kinkiest family member, Patricia Conolly as a menacing dog lover, John Curless as her gastronomically fanatic hubby, Thomas Hill as the benighted patriarch and Jake Weber as four shifty Italians.
John Lee Beatty's two-tiered set reflects perfectly the well-polished and vacuous world of Ayckbourn's characters. Ann Roth's costumes also project the subtle comedy wryly. "Business" is an admirably balanced production of a cunning play.
One of the characters in Alan Ayckbourn's comedy "A Small Family Business," which opened at the Music Box last night, describes the family very well and in typically British terms - "it is not dishonest, just a little fuzzy around the edges." Indeed, everyone - well, everyone but two - is on the make, or as they would say, on the fiddle.
Have you ever wondered how the British live - toddling around town in a plentiful supply of Jaguars and Ferraris, eating in incredibly expensive haute cuisine restaurants, taking vacations in the South of France, etc., etc. - all on salaries that seem to be little above the American minimum wage?
In this play - which was a 1987 hit at London's National Theater in a production starring Michael Gambon - Ayckbourn provides a totally cynical answer.
It is by graft, finagling, cheating, and, well, as the gentleman says, being "not dishonest just a little fuzzy round the edges." The national pastime. Thatcherism has apparently converted a nation of shopkeepers into a nation of shoplifters.
The businessman hero Jack McCracken (the admirable Brian Murray) has just taken over the family furniture business from his increasingly senile father-in-law. Jack is uncompromisingly, unbelievably honest, like a moral character straight out of Moliere via Arthur Pinero. But slowly he finds himself bending and bending and then, bending. The primrose path once entered is irresistible as a whirlpool - and Jack and his wife (Jane Carr) get carried along until it becomes apparent just what kind of family this is.
Jack's brother-in-law is a crook, his brother is a crook, his son-in-law is a crook, and his sister-in-law is also a crook with an interesting sideline involving whips, boots and handcuffs. Into this nest of vice, Jack unwittingly sets a disreputable private eye - "a little ferret going down rabbit holes and flushing out black sheep." Too late, Jack realizes that he is virtually the sole white sheep of the family.
Ayckbourn, a master of ingenuity, plays out his joke with the technique of a spin-dryer, wringing it dry at maximum pace and efficiency. Typically - for Ayckbourn, like Harold Pinter, always discovers a "weasel under the cocktail cabinet" - the play's final note of jollity is leavened by despair, bought at the price of someone left on the edge of suicide.
Not that that need disturb the laughter - playwrights always like to have it both ways - and the laughter is pretty abundant in this Manhattan Theater Club sponsored production, directed adroitly by Lynne Meadow.
The scenery by John Lee Beatty provides a wonderful duplex, multi-purpose doll's house setting for Ayckbourn's dramaturgical architectonics; Ann Roth's costumes are apt and clever, and the cast, though variable, is fairly good.
Murray lets us see his bewildered decency slide away into expediency and pragmaticism, his bluster giving way to resignation, his moral fiber curling at the edges, his moral purpose eroding at the core.
Helping him particularly in the work's humors are Carr as his anxious wife and Caroline Lagerfelt as the Lady with the Whips. Patricia Conolly has style as a depressive dog-lover and Anthony Heald has some lovely moments as the determined private investigator who gets more than he bargained for, but occasionally goes over the top, a top the rest of the cast has little difficulty in keeping far too far under.
Highly praised, and better acted, in London, even there this did not strike me at the time as top-drawer Ayckbourn, and its appeal to American audiences - where the heavy-handed social satire must appear less pertinent - might be dubious.
But if you demand your fun fast and essentially furious, this could be your ticket.
When Americans think about the greed of the 1980's, they think of that distant den of thieves on Wall Street. For the British, grand larceny begins at home. "A Small Family Business," the Alan Ayckbourn comedy that arrived at the Music Box Theater last night, is set entirely in the ordinary households of England's cozy middle-class provinces, where shopping tends to be the major social activity and shoplifting the major misdemeanor. Yet by the time Mr. Ayckbourn brings down the curtain on his nattering suburbanites, they seem as culpable as any Ivan Boesky or Robert Maxwell for the criminal amorality of a decade. Illicit cash, drugs and blood all leave a trail across their immaculately carpeted floors.
Originally produced at the National Theater in London in 1987, just months before the stock market crash, "A Small Family Business" is Mr. Ayckbourn's own equivalent to Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls," David Hare's "Secret Rapture" and Mike Leigh's film "High Hopes": it's a bitter indictment of the Thatcher years as seen at the grass-roots level, at home and the office. But Mr. Ayckbourn, who is no political ideologue, goes after his prey in his own way. He opens with a hilarious gag involving a misbegotten family surprise party and continues to foment laughter well after members of that extended family have been exposed as thieves, adulterers, morons and thugs who are looting their shared ancestral business, a furniture manufacturer. Mr. Ayckbourn is no optimist, but he is a consummate man of the theater who would rather entertain than lecture while lowering the boom.
Some but not all of the play's humor and nastiness come through in this new American production. The director is Lynne Meadow, whose superb stagings of Mr. Ayckbourn's "Woman in Mind" and "Absent Friends" at the Manhattan Theater Club challenged the quality of the English originals and have helped restore the playwright's reputation in New York, where a few of his earlier comedies were manhandled on Broadway in the 1970's. "A Small Family Business" is the best of the dark Ayckbourn plays Ms. Meadow has yet directed -- indeed one of this prolific writer's best plays, period -- but the production, surprisingly, is something of a disappointment. The large supporting cast is so-so, and the tone is broadly comic rather than astringently so.
The evening's finest performance comes from Brian Murray, in the role of Jack McCracken created by Michael Gambon in London. The farcical complications of "A Small Family Business" spiral once the middle-aged Jack leaves his management job at a frozen-foods concern to take over Ayres & Graces, the company founded by his wife's now doddering father. Vowing to bring "basic trust" to an organization where "take, take, take" has been the prevailing ethos, Jack is such a good man he even frowns on the pilfering of office paper clips. Once his in-laws start to drag him down to their level of off-the-books scheming, however, he finds that even the strongest moral convictions cannot withstand the web of corruption that is the clandestine fabric of the society in which he lives.
"There's got to be a minimum level of decent human behavior beneath which none of us sink," says the innocent, woolly headed Mr. Murray just before his own descent begins. His eyes bulging larger and larger as he witnesses graver and graver iniquities, he is an appealing as well as funny straight man whose short-lived virtue is real, not drippy. The physical and esthetic architecture of the community surrounding him is also well conveyed here. John Lee Beatty's set, a two-level house split into six visible rooms, is a blond-wood monument to suburban soullessness. (All the furniture is from the family firm.) Ms. Meadow, following the rough blueprint of Mr. Ayckbourn's original staging, does an expert job of keeping the action bouncing from room to room as the actors and such props as a cash-stuffed briefcase ricochet between four different households that sometimes occupy the stage simultaneously.
But the many people inhabiting these rooms and slamming their doors too often seem as anonymous as their surroundings. That is not how it should be in a play in which each character, as written, offers a sharply etched Dickensian glimpse into venality, pathos or pure evil. Jane Carr, as Jack's well-meaning but easily compromised wife, offers a single shrill note while Barbara Garrick and Robert Stanton as the McCrackens' older daughter and son-in-law and Thomas Hill as the out-to-lunch family patriarch, make scant impression. The family's two principal illicit entrepreneurs, bored husbands respectively funneling money into consumer goods and a culinary obsession, are lackluster to a fault as played by Mark Arnott and John Curless.
The price paid for these faceless performances is flatness during the expository scenes of Act I, and a shortfall in comic hysteria during the chases, mix-ups and violent cataclysms of Act II. Did Ms. Meadow have to devote so much time to the play's complex choreography that the cast was short-changed? One wonders, especially when watching that good young actor Jake Weber lose the laughs in what should be a foolproof running gag or when the excellent (and ideally cast) Anthony Heald gives a studied, tic-ridden account of a twisted private detective whose monstrousness should flow seamlessly. Faring better are some of the female characters victimized by these men: Caroline Lagerfelt as a wife driven to compulsive acquisitiveness and sadomasochistic promiscuity, and Patricia Conolly as another neglected wife so fixated on her mangy old pet mutt that her own demeanor is terminally hangdog.
Amelia Campbell is also striking as the evening's one member of the younger generation, Jack's teen-age daughter. The source of boisterous familial concern early on, she is completely forgotten by one and all at the final curtain. By everyone except Mr. Ayckbourn, that is, who will not let the laughing audience escape the hopeless image of this girl, the play's sole heir to the 1990's, as she cowers in her shiny bathroom, shivering, broken and alone.
Those who feel that subsidized theater ought to do more than subsidize Broadway have a great new case study with "A Small Family Business." Why, critics might reasonably ask, is the Manhattan Theater Club devoting its considerable resources to the lavish staging of a middling comedy by England's most prolific playwright?
To be fair, the company created a commercial subsidiary, MTC Prods. Inc., to co-produce "Business" directly on Broadway. But the principals are artistic director Lynne Meadow and managing director Barry Grove - director and executive producer, respectively, of the production at the Music Box.
Meadow and Grove need answer to no one regarding their long record for presenting some of the most adventurous theater in New York (particularly, in recent seasons, on the second stage at their City Center home base.) They're nothing if not eclectic, which explains why they've also chosen to become Ayckbourn acolytes. But Ayckbourn has fared poorly on Broadway under more conventional circumstances, and this $1.5 million production isn't likely to win many converts to the cause.
"A Small Family Business" is a classical, if not classic, farce in which nearly all of the family's members are corrupt, corruptible and exceedingly acquisitive. The business is the manufacture of home furnishings. Some of the products have mysteriously shown up bearing Italian designer names and selling, in a case of reverse knockoff, at a markup - frequently before the stuff is barely off the drawing board.
In the opening scene, Jack McCracken (Brian Murray) arrives home in an overstimulated mood and begins a hilarious seduction of his wife, Poppy (Jane Carr) - to the snickering amusement of the family members secreted in the den for a surprise celebration. The reason for the party is that Poppy's senile father, Ken (Thomas Hill), has decided to turn the firm over to Jack.
The old man confides in Jack about the ripoffs and compels him to hire private investigator Benedict Hough (Anthony Heald) to get to the bottom of things. Unsurprisingly, Jack soon learns that his various siblings and in-laws are all in on the side action - and that everyone has something on everyone else. By play's end, this upright prig has become downright dirty.
"Business" sports plenty of typical British sex comedy gags, including one ravenous sister-in-law (Caroline Lagerfelt) who has entertained each of the five Rivetti brothers (all played by Jake Weber) and another, (Patricia Conolly) who is convinced that eating in public is obscene. Though the finale has a dreary, end-of-the-'80s aspect, it doesn't fully justify what's gone on before.
Murray is earnest but surprisingly effortful as Jack, though that could be said of the overall production. Meadow has launched it at a fever pitch, and after a couple of hours one comes away feeling hectored. Most of the performances are above average, though Heald seems to be giving a master class in tics, brow-furrowing and lip-curling.
The show has a certain giddy grace, underscored by flashing, pinball-style lights between scenes and those still, and disturbing, final moments. There's an exceptionally handsome set by John Lee Beatty; six rooms double-decked in a suburban household that, true to the family business, is sleekly anonymous - all blond veneer and polished metals that gleam under Peter Kaczorowski's lights. And Ann Roth's costumes are, as always, the kind of clothes you know these characters live in.
The result is a big So what? That $1.5 million may have been spent well, but on the evidence at the Music Box, it wasn't spent wisely.