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Rolling in the Aisles with Ayckbourn: Season’s Greetings at New Milford’s TheatreWorks

By David Begelman, Citizen News


Playwrights aren’t usually as prolific as Alan Ayckbourn. Nor are many of them as successful at the box office. Witness the comedies that seem to tumble out of the Brit’s output of over seventy plays, including Absurd Person Singular (1975), the popular trilogy The Norman Conquests (1973), Woman in Mind (1985), or the more recent Private Fears in Public Places (2004).

Ayckbourn’s all over the place, from a being notable presence on the other side of the Atlantic in London, Scarborough, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, to Broadway (where he is in the habit of collecting Tony awards). He’s been translated into over 35 languages, and seems to be on a creative binge with no end in sight. In a word, he’s unstoppable.

Some of his comedies, like Season’s Greetings, are less attractive when read than when they are performed. So they’re on another level of enjoyment when seasoned troupers do their Ayckbourn thing in real time. Performances of other literature (Shakespeare comes to mind) are often judged by the way they rise to the majesty of the written drama, whereas many of Ayckbourn’s comedies are fully realized only when staged.

The current production of Season’s Greetings at TheatreWorks is no exception. You can read the script and come away convinced it’s exceedingly cornball—until you see how a cast of savvy performers does its thing. Then hilarity takes over, as if the really funny aspects of the show on paper had been playing hide and seek.

Director Glenn R. Couture’s production of the Ayckbourn comedy is a delight, and for several reasons. Its cast of capable performers work extremely well together. A highlight of their frenetic interactions are separate vignettes unfolding on the stage at the same time.

The disparate types gathering for an annual Christmas Eve’s celebration somewhere in England include Belinda (played by Tracy Hurd with a mounting sense of sexual longing and frustration at keeping her guests and husband in tow) and hubby Neville (played by Viv Berger with a composure oddly out of sync with the frantic goings on in his home). He’s obviously under the thumb of his spouse, preferring to disregard her compromising position with a young aspiring novelist, Clive.

Then there is Harvey (played by Matt McQuail with a swagger brash enough to let you know that the gladiator has not only arrived, he’s ready for bear with a gun and a 6-inch knife, to boot). Harvey’s an Archie Bunker type addicted to viewing shark attacks and homicides on T.V. He’s wary of Clive whom he suspects is out to burglarize the home. Bernard (played delightfully with nervous impatience by Philip Cook) undertakes to entertain family members with an annual puppet show that has too many fumbled moments for a smallish audience, including the bellowing and captious Harvey, to find  enjoyable.

Bernard’s puppet show is assisted by Pattie, the very pregnant wife of Eddie. She is played by Mikki Harkin, who is successful at portraying the put upon spouse. She irritates Bernard by handing him the wrong sequence of the Three Little Pigs who do battle with the Big Bad Wolf in his puppet show. Eddie (played hilariously by Tom Libonate) often seems astonished by the goings-on at the Christmas Eve party—when   he is not retreating into his X-Man comic book to escape his wife’s hectoring or the zaniness of the goings on swirling around him.

Phyllis (played uproariously by Janice Connor) becomes progressively inebriated after a series of accidents requiring first aid while cooking a leg of lamb in the kitchen. Coming on strong to Clive, a young novelist (played disarmingly by Nicholas Pollifrone), she leaves Christmas presents in disarray before collapsing on the stairs to the upper bedrooms of the home.

Lastly, Rachel (played with delicious vulnerability by Alison Bernhardt) has a hard time with the sexual challenges of her relationship with novelist Clive. He, in turn, is drawn amorously to Belinda, and the two are caught horizontal on a couch by others at the end of the First Act. But not before their dalliance is interrupted by blaring music and Christmas tree lights suddenly activated by a remote control.

The script reads like a farce or a less than polished soap opera that pulls out all stops. But the performance of a well integrated cast in the New Milford production delivers something more. Even the aptly simulated British accents of all actors enhance the humor of the show.

The backstage production crew of Renee Purdy, Scott Wyshynski, Richard Pettibone, John Bolster, and Jon Ross contributed to the success of the comedy, but the biggest accolades belong to Director Glenn R. Coutoure for bringing it all off with style. If the audience reaction on opening night is any indication, Season’s Greetings at TheatreWorks is a resounding success.

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