Ayckbourn's 'Season's Greetings' Does Very Well in New Milford
NEW MILFORD — The prolific Alan Ayckbourn, often touted as the British Neil Simon, has written an unbelievable number of plays, generally situational farces populated by characters whose human complexity makes them more real, and more memorable than the general sitcom population.
In his own production notes for Season's Greetings, which is the current offering at Theatre Works New Milford, Ayckbourn described his play as dealing with "the grisly side" of Christmas, set in a cozy and comfy home that "swarms with children. Not the smaller, shorter variety... who remain unseen ... But the taller older ones ... the 25 to 70-year old — Fighting over the toys, clamoring: for attention, bullying, sneaking and crying, then kissing and making up and generally getting far too overexcited, as they always do every year at Christmas..."
Over a four day span beginning on Christmas Eve, somewhere in England, Neville and Belinda Bunker are hosting their annual Christmas gathering. House guests include Neville's friend Eddie and his family, Uncles Harvey and Bernard and Bernard's wife, Phyllis, Belinda's kid sister Rachel, and the new man in her life, Clive.
Situational undercurrents form a recipe for trouble: Harvey, a super-macho Soldier of Fortune wannabe, recently retired after 30 years as a commercial security consultant, broods angrily over paranoid fantasies of home invaders. His intention of giving all the children guns for Christmas foreshadows a Chekovian climax.
His diametrically opposite-minded brother-in-law, Bernard, is compulsively absorbed in planning his annual home made puppet show of The Three Little Pigs, which he is sure the children will love. In fact everyone, adults and children alike, dread the show, which consists of forty scenes and will take several hours to perform, once Bernard gets it properly rehearsed.
The alcoholic Phyllis has taken over Belinda's kitchen, getting increasingly lubricated on cooking sherry, while claiming to be fixing dinner. .
Eddie's endemically pregnant wife Pattie is getting increasingly resentful over her Husband's systematic avoidance of her and their three children. She wants him to come up and read bedtime stories. All he wants is to head off to the pub with his mate Nev.
Rachel is anxious and unsure over the nature of Clive's ambiguous interest in her. A young writer, he was supposed to come up from London on the early train, but wasn't there when she drove to meet him at the station.
Belinda is trying to make it a happy, festive Christmas with all traditional customs respected but she is finding it increasingly difficult to herd this bunch of cats into proper cooperation, and it becomes increasingly obvious that Neville isn't actually on the page with her.
Because this is Ayckbourn, the interactions between them all create some great laughs, and allow for some of the cast members to give marvelous comic performances. In particular, Janice Connor is absolutely wild as Phyllis, Tom Libonate is hilarious as a comatose drunk, Newtown's Matt McQuail is wonderful in the role of the militaristic Harvey, and Philip Cook's rendition of Bernard's puppet show, with assistance from Mikki Harkin as the long-suffering Pattie, had the audience giggling, though not with childish delight. Remote-controlled sound and light systems (that can go on unexpectedly) and Christmas packages that can be hurled about the room can trigger more laughs.
At the same time, there was a certain disconnect between the individual set comic riffs, and the underlying theme of cracks in the social fabric. The marriages seem cold-beds of passive aggression. The men don't listen to their wives even when they pretend to be paying attention. Clive (who eventually arrives and sets off new waves of turbulence) is unclear about how to handle everyone's perception that he is the man in Rachel's life.
The first act is long, especially the Christmas Eve scene which is used to build up the individual characterizations, before the point starts to become clear. By the end, however, the audience has had a good time, and as usual, with Ayckbourn, has been given much to think about.
Tracy Hard and Viv Berger do well in the less comic roles of the Bunkers. The same is true for Alison Bernhardt and Nicholas Pollifrone as Rachel and Clive.
Glenn Couture directed doing especially well with the funny bits.