Sir Alan Ayckbourn long has been known to international audiences, and to English audiences in particular, as a playwright skilled at a certain kind of British farcical humor that is broad and, to some, amusing. Much like "Downton Abbey" is a televised draw for non-Brits, Ayckbourn's plays receive attention from a certain type of enthusiastic American audience for whom the exaggerated mannerisms and obsessive class structures of pedantic middle England continue to hold amusement and fascination.
As a person born and raised in the Commonwealth, the feeling from my side of the pond is that these dime-a-dozen romps through the usual upstairs/downstairs scenarios are overplayed, but in an attempt at good sportsmanship, I went to New Stage Repertory's production of Ayckbourn's "Taking Steps" in the hopes that Director Doug Warner and his assembled actors might do something good with it.
Alas, despite a valiant effort by the ensemble, Sir Alan's play (first premiered in the late 1970s) feels as flavorless as a greasy winter pudding served up by your batty dowager aunt. The idea of a good, old-fashioned British farce — part Monty Python, part "Fawlty Towers" — does surface periodically due to a well-delivered line from one or other of the actors, but the show generally feels a little stuck in the American idea of how English people behave. As such, there is a lot of gesticulation, attempts at communication that are swallowed whole as artists struggle to exemplify British "reserve," and some particularly excruciating exchanges between Max Gutfreund as Tristam, an unassertive and timid solicitor, and Ric Hagerman as Roland, his rich, boorish, alcoholic client.
These hapless chaps are shortly joined by Stephanie Jones as Leslie, a local builder who owns the home in which Roland is currently living, and is attempting to sell it to her wealthy tenant. Ms. Jones apparently has been instructed by her director to place the viability of her character on a grating, neurotic laugh that stays throughout the performance and wears out its welcome very early on.
Despite the muddiness, there are some moments worth mentioning. Presila Quinby, a well-known local Equity actress, shines in the role of Elizabeth, Roland's put-upon wife. As a former dancer trapped in a troubled marriage, Quinby is great fun to watch — her professionalism and gift for comedy are a credit to the production. Peter Wickliffe, as her hapless and cuckolded brother, Mark, is believable in his stiff Commonwealth manner and competently executed accent. Kelsey Tidball, playing Mark's betraying wife, Kitty, does well in her limited role, striking a chord of pathos and desperation that is quelled by special attentions from Tristam.
Things do pick up a bit as Act I comes to an end and Act II begins, with plenty of strange bedfellows, banging doors, mistaken identities and broad physical comedy. There is a particularly amusing scene in which the three male leads flop about in matching pajamas; some amusing moments also arrive when an earlier referenced resident spook by the name of "Scarlet Lucy" seems to make her presence known in the crumbling country manor in which all the players are marooned.
"Taking Steps" is a fair enough attempt, and Quinby alone is worth the price of admission. If you're in the mood for broad comedy, and don't object to the sweeping stereotypes that often come with the genre, then "Taking Steps" may well be your cup of tea.
"Taking Steps" continues at 7:30 p.m. today, Sept. 9, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10, at the Craterian Theater. Tickets are $18. See www.craterian.org.
Reach Jeffrey Gillespie at email@example.com.