Comedy, as Shakespeare incomparably illustrates, derives its lifeblood from the many meanings of the word play. From the giddily romantic Forest of Arden to the besotted seascapes of enchanted Illyria, the merriest forms of entertainment involve deceiving others—often in full drag or at the very least through some ingenious emotional disguise. Downtown dramatist Judy Elkan modernizes this classic tradition in her nouveau drawing-room farce Sundays Out of Country. If her archly sophisticated characters are not engaged in some elaborate, libidinously charged party game, they’re no doubt manipulating one another’s feelings through some oh-so-lighthearted ruse.
Set in an ultracontemporary salon, the adult high jinks revolve around a theater-director host with a decadent sense of fun (performed by Judy Elkan as a temporary replacement for George Gissing) and her four eagerly diverted actor friends, conveniently balanced in terms of age and sex. Of course it’s never quite clear who’s after whom in the kaleidoscopic turning of affections. But as the players sip their illegal absinthe in between rounds of a Freudianized version of charades, their clamoring for amusement— i.e., erotic fulfillment— grows more savage. To placate her increasingly lovelorn guests, the director invites them to enact scenes from turn-of-the-century dramas, assigning them roles that obliquely magnify their various longings and humiliations. Granted this may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but there’s nothing like a little theatrical thrust-and-parry to keep the amorous senses sharp.
Elkan’s daft cleverness sustains the bouncy mood for a while, though it becomes quickly apparent that not much in the way of traditional dramatic action is going to happen. Apropos of nothing, a character will ask someone to squeeze her breasts or launch into a diatribe about a giraffe seen last night on television. As beguiling as these individual moments can be, the non sequitur wit, unallied to any coherent darker purpose, can’t help losing its satisfying ping.
Elkan’s highly stylized direction, complete with the occasional freeze-frame tableau, only exaggerates the brittleness of the writing. This combined with the cast’s relative inexperience makes for a rather clinical encounter— akin to watching a sporting event through a pane of glass. As the wide-eyed ingenue, Emily Donahoe provides the only glimpse of an inner life— a luxury, it should be noted, that doesn’t clash with Andromache Chalfant’s austerely beautiful set or Elkan’s super-aestheticized humor. The object of the love game may be to conceal the truth, but, as Shakespeare revealed, it’s the unconcealable ache in our hearts that spurs all our compulsive shenanigans.