Cheaters prosper at New Century
By LARRY PARNASS, Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2003 -- NORTHAMPTON - Next week, New Century Theatre gives us the higher math, and thoughtful drama, of "Proof." This week, it's the polynomials of nuptials that won't quite add up, in a British comedy that uses three couples to tell the story of two halves.
"How the Other Half Loves," by Alan Ayckbourn, is the kind of device-on-its-sleeve play that elicits sniggering even as it sits on a shelf - at least from anyone with a pulse of humor. Director Jack Neary and the Northampton company's crackerjack cast work madly, and successfully, to draw all they can from this tale of a marital lie's half-life.
"How the Other Half Loves" puts two marriages in fishbowls and then lines them up so we see through both. The actors set their phasers to stun and start shooting. The laugh lines pop like hot corn; only a few fail to inflate, like a typically English mistaken identity joke about a Bloody Mary.
Ayckbourn is a loony geographer of stage space. In his play "The Norman Conquests," Ayckbourn used different rooms in a house to provide varying perspectives on its action. In his "Bedroom Farce," three bedrooms offer different views on the same action. In his "Taking Steps," performed two years ago in South Hadley, a one-level, open-sided stage is rigged imaginatively to represent three levels within a house.
Somebody get this man a blueprint!
In "How the Other Half Loves," two couples start their mornings in two homes, one toney, the other more frazzle-sleeved middle-management. From left to right, the New Century set, by Edward Check, gives us - in fourths - a slice of the classy Foster home, then a smear of the Phillips digs, then the Foster doorway and then the Phillips dining table.
With that shuffled deck dealt, the comedy begins. Bob Phillips (Buzz Roddy) is coping grumpily with morning-after questions from his wife Teresa (Cate Damon) about his carousing.
Over at the Foster home, the glamorous Fiona (Laurie Dawn) is more easily evading queries from her dodgy older husband (Harlan Baker) about her whereabouts last night. He is Bob Phillips' boss. Another employee, a hapless accountant named William Detweiler (Andrew Dolan) and his wife Mary (Laura Given Napoli) have no idea that they are the ones the lovers use as excuses.
It is a Thursday morning. As the actors stretch into their somewhat stock characters, the play ramps up to its premature big finish, a wacky collision of time and space over unmatched flatware of one dining table.
It doesn't give too much away - and surely, this is what word of mouth makes so appealing about this comedy - to say that the audience gets a simultaneous view of what happens at separate dinner parties on Thursday and Friday nights in both the Foster and Phillips homes.
As the action reaches a peak, the performers must sharply adjust their poses with each cued line, as Daniel D. Rist's lighting effects take us in a flash from one table to another and from one night to another.
Neary and his cast nailed it perfectly in the show I caught Tuesday night, particularly Damon as the wined-but-not-dined hostess. They made the difficult look easy, putting hospital corners on these unkempt beds.
Of course, a more risqu‚ author would have flipped back to what these four people were doing Wednesday night, but then, this isn't "Oh, Calcutta."
In Act II, (Saturday morning, followed a bit conventionally by Sunday morning), those two couples try to clarify or mystify the truth about infidelity - depending on whose assets are in a sling.
Baker, Dawn, Roddy and Damon fashion four characters as different as compass points, whose affairs cause neat verities of geography to collapse.
Dolan and Napoli give us two endearing and overwhelmed innocents. As Mary, Napoli has the edge that the simplest characters get in this sort of romp. She gags when sipping a martini and it's genuinely funny. She simpers when wrongly accused of having an affair and it's funny.
For that, thank the madness of the situation in this comedy - and the cast's exquisitely timed delivery. You can set your watch by this play's laughs. They're as dependable as Big Ben.
"How the Other Half Loves," directed by Jack Neary, runs through Sunday at the New Century Theatre in Northampton. Tickets are $20, $18 for seniors. Call 587-3933.