Theater archives

Thirty Years Later, Ayckbourn’s Absurdity Doesn’t Seem so Singular Anymore


The absurd persons of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular actually come in pairs, three couples whom we see at a succession of Christmas parties over three consecutive years. The play’s only singular figure, which we don’t see, is a monstrous dog. Regrettably, the production at the Biltmore is also a monstrous dog.

Like many of Ayckbourn’s plays, Absurd Person Singular, which made money on Broadway in 1974, fits its people into a pattern. The three couples—business class, artist/artisan class, and parvenu—are all not exactly each other’s sort. The three marriages are all differently made beds of woe. As the years roll on, each seeming like a decade under John Tillinger’s earnest, lugubrious direction, the characters’ relative positions shift, but this has no effect on their relationships: By the end, the parvenus, who were initially scoffed at, have taken over, so that the others greet them with stolid resentment instead of pitying condescension. The puzzle has worked itself out neatly, but it’s hard to care.

The original production cleverly threw a set of American monkey wrenches into Ayckbourn’s well-oiled British machinery, through a cast heavy on Method actors and musical comedy stars. The resulting cognitive dissonance made the machine give off lots of sparks. This time around, everything is acted with painstaking, desperately dull accuracy. Paxton Whitehead and Deborah Rush, as the bumbling banker and his alcoholic spouse, made me laugh about twice each, and everybody yelped when Rush sneered at the smallness of the parvenus’ kitchen—which, being a John Lee Beatty, seems larger than most Manhattan duplexes.