You have to love Alan Ayckbourn. There’s always a gimmick in his plays, my favorite of which are THE NORMAN CONQUESTS. Like the NORMANs, HOUSE and GARDEN have the same cast in each play, one play in the garden and the other inside the house. But here, as Gabby Hayes used to say, is “the beauty part:” They’re performed simultaneously, with the actors madly sprinting from one exit in the HOUSE play to an entrance in GARDEN. This, of course, necessitates two theater spaces in the same building and a stage manager with nerves of steel to keep it all meshing perfectly.
I saw HOUSE upstairs at Trinity Rep (and peeked in downstairs at Eugene Lee’s gorgeous garden set for the other play) where Lee’s set for the indoors play reflects the ancestral grandeur of an old manor house, complete with oil portraits of earlier movers and shakers. Ayckbourn sets up lots of laughs and lots of seeds for future harvest but some (like the tragic demise of female forbears or the tantalizing mention of “Penelope”) never sprout—leaving me confused because every tidbit usually pays off handsomely in Ayckbourn comedies. House (and GARDEN) offer an embarrassment of riches but plot isn’t one of them (nor is a satisfying ending).
Never mind those details. We’re treated to marvelous shenanigans when the current head of the estate is courted by friends of the Prime Minister as a candidate for office, buoyed by his father and grandfather’s service record as an M.P. All he has to be is above reproach, the one thing he is not. All hell breaks loose at a luncheon to cement the deal when his wife refuses to speak to him, his lover and her husband arrive, he drinks too much and a French film star on her way to rehab joins the party.
Director Brian McEleney gets hilarious performances from everyone but especially from Anne Scurria, who elevates the act of saying “no” to an art, from Stephen Thorne as the awfully nice, somewhat clueless best friend of the prospective politician (Fred Sullivan, Jr. playing exasperated a thousand different ways) and from Phyllis Kay as the inebriated French actress. Ayckbourn concocts endless mayhem to “obstruct the inevitable” but HOUSE does eventually end, sadly with just a whimper.