Sex, Death, and the Struggle to Stay Awake
One of the few things of comparable comedic value to our own foibles are those of previous generations. Alan Ayckbourn's '60s British farce How the Other Half Loves plays out in a world of corporate men and their housewives, walking a plank made of misunderstanding and intermittent cruelty. It's a convoluted and intricate work that, in this production, sees the laughs coming too few and far between.
The action opens with Nick O'Donnell's Bob on the phone with his boss's wife Fiona, played by Buffy Sedlachek. Seems they slept together the night before. Fiona is a little worried about how to proceed, while Bob proclaims things pretty much shagadelic. Soon things decline for him at home, though, where his wife Teresa (Jennifer Blagen) is tiring of raising their baby, and eyeing which rolling pin to apply to her husband's skull.
Bain Boehlke's set (he also directs) visually combines Bob and Teresa's funky pad with the boss's more upscale digs. Much of the play involves complicated action with more than one place and time co-existing, and Boehlke's particular solution is to slice the two homes into slivers that alternate across the visual field. While the oranges and blues that dominate may be indicative of the era, the resulting clash of palates is perhaps more off-putting than intended.
The comedic side of the show is anchored by Fred Wagner as Fiona's husband Frank. Wagner wades into the role with an appropriately ridiculous gusto, combining bluster and cluelessness to grab many of the laugh lines. Frank's misunderstandings manage to nearly scuttle the marriage of Wade Vaughn's William and Maggie Chestovich's Mary, while he tries to keep hold of the train of thought that reminds him his wife has left a number of loose ends untied in accounting for her recent whereabouts.
O'Donnell moves through the proceedings with a sadistic leer on his face that suggests a darker view of the entertainment his character derives from all the sexual cross-currents, and Sedlachek's distant evasions are credibly funny. Yet for all the considerable energy being expended onstage, and all the convolutions and machinations in Ayckbourn's script, this dog won't hunt. The delicate alchemy of getting an audience to buy into the humor of the night doesn't take place and, while entertaining and amusing moments flash past, there simply aren't enough of them to justify the peculiar and not-so-pleasant feeling of exhaustion this show evokes.
The program for Psst! notes that author Jason was named "second-best Norwegian graphic novelist of all time," which seems a bit like being the third-funniest German comedian, but never mind. A look through his work before the show revealed a distinctive aesthetic vision that is nicely adapted to the stage by Off-Leash Area.
The actors all wear Paul Herwig's blank-eyed papier-mâché masks, and move through abstract scenes of industrial alienation, faltering love, and a descent into the sinister world of death. Mark Doty's score draws on sound effects, strum-along psychedelia, and Brian Eno-style clatter. Jennifer Ilse's choreography, while quite simple, brings together the abstract elements into a few sparkling scenes--particularly a stilt-walking episode that will probably be one of the more distinctive sights seen on a local stage this year.
Jim Lieberthal plays The Skull, who torments The Janitor (Herwig) by seducing his dead girlfriend, The Secretary (Ilse). While utilizing the graphic novel as a springboard, the script also dips into silent film antics and our old friend the crushing dystopia. There are moments of real beauty and poignancy here, but there are also matters of which the viewer should be warned. It feels overlong by about a third, and while the work fills up a big stage, some immediacy is lost in the distance between stage and audience. A tinge of amateurism that ultimately creeps through suggests the creators should have been more aware of overstaying their welcome.
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