Thursday, July 09, 2009

M&D offers change of pace

'How the Other Half Loves' delivers big laughs

M&D Productions has a reputation of doing provocative, challenging material that can be difficult and emotionally draining to watch. This is by no means a bad thing, it very often makes for excellent theater, but some may breathe a sigh of relief that the theater company has taken a turn into farce for its latest production, “How the Other Half Loves.”

“How the Other Half Loves,” which opens at Your Theatre at Willow Common in North Conway, N.H. Thursday July 9, first appeared on Broadway in 1971 and deals with an increasing level of confusion between three sets of couples.

The play’s staging and set is quite ingenious. The households of the middle class Philipses and the upper class Fosters share the stage with half being dedicated to each home. Scenes of the two couples play out simultaneously with criss-crossing dialogue often creating amusing juxtapositions. It sounds confusing in description, but on stage works beautifully.

As the play opens it is the morning after Bob Philips (David Freedman) and Fiona Foster (Paula S. Jones) have come home from late nights and their spouses, Theresa (Janette Kondrat) and Frank (Richard Russo) are not pleased, although they show it in drastically different ways.

Theresa is a door slammer with a sharp tongue. Frank is chronically absent minded, maybe even a bit senile, so it is hard to tell if his approach with his wife is passive aggressive or just blissful aloofness.

Bob and Fiona both claim to have spent the night consoling one half of another couple, William and Mary Detweiler (Eric Jordan and Katie Gustafson), each claiming that one member of the couple is cheating on the other.

This little lie leads to layers of mix-ups and misunderstandings that pile higher and higher especially when the Detweilers are invited to dinners at both of the other couples’ homes. Although the dinners happen a night apart they take place at the same time on stage like a movie cutting between two different scenes.

Jordan and Gustafson come in about half way through the first act and inject the show with a new vigor. Up to this point the humor has been largely verbal, but Jordan and Gustafson as the nervous, socially awkward Detweilers bring a physicality to the humor that accentuates the dialogue.

Both Jordan and Gustafson show sharp comedic timing and a wide range of hilarious facial expression and body language in reaction to the unfolding events.

The rest of the cast should not be shortchanged though. Russo absolutely nails a very particular sort of scatterbrained person. The way he attempts to recount a story and gets hung up on the names of people rings all too true. Russo’s spot-on line delivery recalls Alan Alda or Woody Allen.

Kondrat is great at fuming. When she catches Freedman in a lie her anger is palpable, but it is always played for laughs and never turns sour. Her drunken serenading of the Detweilers is one of the show’s bigger laughs.

Freedman’s Bob is probably the least likable character. There are some nasty misogynistic notes to the character that Freedman is able to dull some so he isn’t a completely unsavory person.

The show is structured in such a way that the show continues to build. Grins become broad smiles then give way to chuckles and conclude with guffaws. This holds most true of the dinner scenes in which the comedic energy builds to a fever pitch.

English playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s script is approaching 40 years in age, but it still feels fresh and only lines referencing a percolator and getting together for cocktails show any signs of dating.

Even though the show borders on madcap, this isn’t just a bunch of silliness and barbed one-liners. Ayckbourn gets in some truths about relationships that with a switch of tone could be quite painful. Instead “How the Other Half Loves” reminds that life is a tragedy until you laugh at it.

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