I often rag at playwrights for not knowing the tradition they write in, but Alan Ayckbourn’s the exception: After spending a day at his two linked plays, House and Garden, I really wish he knew less about his predecessors. He used his knowledge aptly enough in Comic Potential, which took the art one metaphysical notch higher, to create a comedy about the difficulty of creating a comedy. House and Garden, unfortunately, bring Ayckbourn back to his home turf, recalling far too many of his earlier and lesser plays, not to mention far too many other people’s. Here everything’s familiar. To match the lack of freshness in the context, there’s no fresh observation, and precious few fresh expressions of human feeling—just an endless parade of recycled comic tropes. The only new element, as so often before, is what might be termed the industrial freshness of the ingenious way the old gag setups are bolted together this time around. It’s the same old cola, with the same unhealthy additives, only now in a differently shaped can. In House and Garden the gimmick is that neither play fully explains itself, so that you have to see both to understand everything that goes on—a joke for which the only imaginable target audience would be a marketing directors’ convention.
Ayckbourn writes in the queasy mixed genre known as farce comedy or farcical comedy. This characteristically Anglo-American mode of theater has the annoying habit of trying to be all things to all audiences. Comedy depicts human beings as they really are, in all their awfulness; farce, traditionally the more stylized form, uses a real human situation as the foundation on which to build a worst-case cartoon nightmare. Devices and tonalities have always seeped from one genre into the other (Orgon hiding under the table in Tartuffe is a farce action used as the climax of a comedy), but merging the two, in Ayckbourn’s fashion, tends most often to be a way of defusing both: Whenever the comedy gets uncomfortably real, it can veer safely off into cartoon; whenever the farce gets too nightmarish, a little compassion can be comfortingly brushed in to calm it down. The mixed genre, unsurprisingly, tends to be more viable at the box office than either of the purer forms.
Farcical comedy also tends to be more vague than either of its tributary streams about social specifics, and so it is with House and Garden. Teddy Platt, possessor of both titular objects, comes from a long line of ultra-rightist political eminences, but doesn’t appear to give a hoot about politics himself— though this doesn’t stop him from wanting to run for the local parliamentary seat, currently occupied by a loser about to get booted by his party. To this end, he has invited to lunch his old school chum, a novelist and political fixer named Gavin Ryng-Mayne (“with a y,” he keeps saying, though the name contains two). That as an M.P. he’d have to give up whatever business provides his family income (another mystery) apparently doesn’t faze him, nor does the fact that his wife Sally, though living in the same house, has been declining to acknowledge his existence for some time, the result of his ongoing adultery with his best friend Giles’s wife, Joanna. The trusting Giles, similarly, hasn’t cottoned on to the adultery yet, though you’d think that, as both a doctor and a frequent visitor to the Platt domicile, he might have perceived Sally’s denial of Teddy’s presence even when they’re in the same room. (The worst part of the bastard genre is its tendency to condescend to its characters; the everyday stupidity of all humans never quite suffices for it.)
Gavin’s arrival naturally falls on the day of the village’s annual fete, naturally held on the Platts’ lawn, so Sally naturally must also give lunch to the celebrity who declares the proceedings open. This year, by highly tenuous coincidence, said celebrity is a minor French film starlet named, with typically Ayckbournish obviousness, Lucille Cadeau (French for “gift”), who naturally speaks no English. Mam’zelle Cadeau indeed becomes a necessary gift for Teddy: He has just broken up with Joanna, Giles has just found out about their affair, and twisted Gavin only has eyes for the Platts’ 17-year-old daughter, so no one else is speaking to him at all. There is a subplot involving the Platts’ three servants, another centering on daughter Platt’s contorted teen romance with Giles and Joanna’s son, a third involving the dimwitted village couple in charge of setting up the fete, and a fourth about La Cadeau’s agent-cum-driver’s efforts to keep the real reason for her presence in the area secret.
None of these strings of events is particularly interesting, in large part because the characters going through them are, in alternating swatches, either too numskulled or too extravagant to bear more than a minute’s attention at a time; some of the lesser ones are scarcely worth that. If all the action were somehow crammed into a single 150-minute evening, it might make a passable farce. If half of it were junked, and the other half concentrated on in an adult fashion, it might make an intriguing bittersweet comedy. At various points, both House and Garden do both those things, for between four and eight minutes at a time; then the next event trudges on to turn the evening into either gibbering trivia or numbing earnestness. The second act of House, where much of the emotionally valid material seems to have puddled, is the most tolerable part of the experience, and Jan Maxwell’s Sally, gradually steeling herself to become a milder Nora Helmer (albeit far too genteel to slam a door), is its most appealing effort toward a performance, followed closely by Carson Elrod as Jake, Joanna and Giles’s son.
There isn’t, however, any wholly fair way to evaluate actors obliged to play such a vitiated mass of pasted-together irrelevancies. Director John Tillinger has done a very efficient job of coordinating a set of traffic problems that could give any urban planner goose pimples, and no one in the cast seems very far off track. The problem is that these tracks lead only onto sidings and branch lines: At the start of House, I thought that Michael Countryman must have missed something in making Giles such a sap; by the end of Garden, I was grateful to him for adding a touch of grit to a role that, as written, is less like a human than a bowl of bread and milk. Daniel Gerroll (Gavin) gets to be creepy and pompous; Veanne Cox (Joanna) gets to be demented and hyper; Nicholas Woodeson (Teddy) gets to tune out vacantly and lean forward eagerly. No doubt these are all commendable skills, but I have seen these people act, and firmly believe they could do so again, if someone would write them a three-dimensional role to play. I felt sorriest for Patricia Connolly, whose lengthy and admirable career has given her the right to do more than stand about, as the Platts’ cook, committing synthetic malapropisms; the more emotional truth she brings to the role, the more factitious she makes Ayckbourn’s work look. But that’s the trouble with a writer who knows too many old jokes; accumulating them has left his brain no storage space for the reality in which they once had point.
Leaving MCC Theatre after A Letter From Ethel Kennedy, I felt angry, as I do after seeing a bad play. I didn’t realize until I read through the program the next day that I had actually been attending a memorial service: Christopher Gorman, the author, died of AIDS last May; it was among his dying wishes that Joanna Gleason stage this play and Anita Gillette appear in it as the mother of the hero, whose name is Kit—short for Christopher. I feel bad about this because I like to know whether I am attending a memorial service or a play; I’ve seen far too many of each that look more like the other. Repetitive, self-indulgent, and distressingly smug, A Letter From Ethel Kennedy was not in any way ready for the public, and should only have been given as a private performance for the author’s friends and associates. The smugness, of course, is removed in retrospect by one’s knowledge of what lay underneath it. To say that this was the best the author could do would be unjust; it was the best he had time to do. Almost everyone onstage seems a little uncomfortable about it, and I can understand why. The exceptions are Gillette, another of those blessed artists incapable of striking a false note, and Jay Goede, who rides the ups and downs of the hero’s moods with a touching air of pained patience.