Before orange juice grew in waxed cardboard cartons, British sailors avoided scurvy by sucking on limes; hence the term limeys. This tradition may have something to do with British comedy, which, in its sweet-tart, austere flavor, suggests the palate of a nation that’s sucked on limes for centuries. Yet despite its probable naval origins, British comedy is an unsteady traveler: No matter how carefully it’s packaged, it often loses its savor when exported. Sardonic in outlook and muted in tone, it only intermittently engages other countries’ comic sense. Americans, who prefer their laughs either more cleanly vulgar or more lucidly subtle, often don’t know what to make of it.
To list the current crop of tart-sweet English savories, in order of literary quality, means starting with its most nakedly enjoyable item: Alan Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential, a recent London hit imported with its star, Janie Dee, in an otherwise new American production by John Tillinger. Ayckbourn is a traditionalist, using the stock character types and situations of English farce, rearranged with an elaborate structural ingenuity that, until now, has never given me any cause for laughter. But Comic Potential is a simple, straightforward, farcical comedy, with no fancy dramaturgical gimmicks. And it’s often, quite simply, very funny and very charming, refreshing the tradition without altering its bounds.
The scene is a TV studio in the near future, when soap actors have been replaced by androids. An alcoholic old film director (a sublimely funny performance by Peter Michael Goetz) resentfully puts the “actoids” through their paces, smarting under the scornful thumb of the studio head (Kristine Nielsen in ferociously fine form). Enter the sap (appealing Alexander Chaplin)—the conglomerate owner’s movie-struck nephew. Already infatuated with the director’s now classic early films, he quickly falls in love with an actoid ingenue seemingly programmed to malfunction (Dee). “I have a fault,” she explains, with mechanical demureness, whenever she does anything human.
Dee is enchanting—her warm but angular presence suggests a stick-figure Carole Lombard, reprogrammed to synthesize the voice of the young Tammy Grimes—yet she’s emphatically not the whole show. Ayckbourn’s script offers comic opportunities to any actor skilled enough to seize them. Nielsen grabs a full half-dozen; Kellie Overbey and Mercedes Herrero, as Goetz’s long-suffering flunkies, snatch a few by teamwork; Macintyre Dixon and Carson Elrod, as the media mogul and his yes-man, snag three or four apiece. Naturally, Dee gets a whole banquet’s worth—Ayckbourn even riffs on the cliché about actresses who can spellbind while reciting the dictionary—climaxing in a hilariously obscene restaurant set piece, in which Chaplin has to dive under the table to readjust Dee’s robotic innards. Here, as elsewhere, the script’s packed with allusions to the whole roster of robot sci-fi, from Capek on—a ribbon of joshing footnotes running alongside its carefully unitalicized verbal wit.
Unitalicized is also the word for Betrayal, Pinter’s high comedy of a love triangle—husband, wife, and husband’s best friend—that’s happier adulterous than aloof. Despite the pain of the lovers’ breakup, the behavior Pinter notates with such sardonic precision is too cold-blooded to be called anything but comic. Three stiff upper lips may quiver a bit, but little pounding of hearts can be heard. Even Betrayal‘s famous backward movement through time is jerkily comic—not straight back from scene to scene, but one step forward, two steps back, as if it were trying to twitch these three obstinates into action.
Underpinning the time games and the web of details the characters keep from one another is a typically bleak Pinteresque joke: There’s no danger in this adultery—husband Robert loves Emma much less than he loves his friend Jerry. Robert and Jerry’s competitiveness—publisher versus literary agent at work, rival squash players at the gym—sublimates feelings they aren’t facing; Emma, failed by them both, takes up with a seedy novelist whose work Jerry has palmed off on Robert. Telling the story backward, far from enhancing its pathos, shows it in harsh, clinical light as a series of unwise moves, like T.S. Eliot’s “mistaken attempts to correct mistakes/By methods that proved to be equally mistaken.” You don’t have to be English for the joke to be plainly visible, even through the relentless impassivity of the dialogue.
Bookending Juliette Binoche’s New York debut with two first-rate American actors, David Leveaux’s production catches both the text’s pointillist details and the chill in its blood. The latter emanates from Liev Schreiber’s Jerry, forever pulling back and diving inward to contemplate the mess of his love life. A contrasting heat emanates from John Slattery’s Robert, a brilliant study in displaced fervor, running from every emotion and regretting every gesture as he makes it. The scene in which, having learned about the affair, he drinks his way through lunch with Jerry, is Pinter acting at its most hilarious—and painful. Binoche, exquisitely beautiful and blessed with a Frenchwoman’s gift for wearing clothes elegantly, can produce feelings on cue but sustains them less well than her two partners, so that the triangle sags a little along its hypotenuse.
Joe Orton worked in the same tradition as Ayckbourn, much the way a dynamiter works the same mine as a shoveler. Orton was out to inject modernism’s insanity into the nightmare erotics of farce, a task at which he might have succeeded more subtly if he’d lived. What the Butler Saw, his last play, is full of imperishably witty lines but a complete hell to put onstage. The writing’s half Oscar Wilde and half Feydeau; either the epigrams block the action or it tramples them underfoot. And the farce has its own internal problems, including a carefree acknowledgment of sexuality that makes all its furtiveness absurd in the wrong sense.
Scott Elliott’s production for the New Group takes the bravest but least practical way out of this impasse: Treating the piece as a work of wit, he slows it down, until the final bedlam, with chilling gravity. True, the witticisms are all audible, but the characters, with few exceptions, are reduced to monochrome, while the laughs vanish in the antiseptic air. For a final blow, Elliott has Peter Frechette’s oleaginous Dr. Rance deliver his demonized interpretation of the goings-on, not to the person onstage with him, but into a tape recorder, at one stroke removing from the demented speech both Rance’s delight in it and its dramatic effect. The moment’s especially annoying because the other person onstage is the splendid Lisa Emery, who comes closer than any actress I’ve seen to making sense of Mrs. Prentice: self-righteous, embittered, bisexual nymphomaniacs traumatized by rape aren’t easy to play. Especially with all those damn epigrams. The other strong performance, in a much less demanding role, is Max Baker’s Sergeant Match.
The driest of all English stage jests, Harley Granville Barker’s 1916 one-act, Farewell to the Theatre, is only now, in New York, receiving its world premiere. By the time it was published, Barker had already removed himself from the London theater’s frustrations. His comedy, a duologue between the actress-producer of a high-art theater and the lovestruck lawyer who handles her affairs, pays tribute to both the power of the stage and its ultimate falsity. Both characters, in their fifties, have fought hard, she to make her artistry carry some value and he to keep from being hypnotized by her glamour. Both are long past all illusion: She’s lost faith in her ability to find emotional truth onstage, as well as in the public’s ability to accept it; he’s conquered his sentiment sufficiently to marry and have children. With his wife long dead and her theater on the verge of financial collapse, will they finally get together? Don’t jump to conclusions about who’s renouncing what. The two roles are a diva’s dream and a character man’s apotheosis; Sally Kemp and George Morfogen handle them solidly, with sincerity and grace, in the Mint Theatre’s production, directed by Gus Kaikkonen. He does less well with the curtain-raiser, George Kelly’s vaudeville sketch The Flattering Word, which, shorn of its repetitions and played twice as fast and four times as lightly, would put the evening in perfect balance.