If laughter is the best medicine, then Alan Ayckbourn surely is a master surgeon. He's been called the British Neil Simon, though the English Fedeau is more apt because of his wildly inventive and wildly successful farces. At one point he had five plays running at once on the London stage --- proving that life often does imitate art, because Ayckbourn is a specialist in "simultaneity". He adores fiddling with theatrical "space" so that one scene can show simultaneous action in two or even three different houses, or three plays can show what's taking place at exactly the same time in different rooms.
Sex, class and death often get a thorough going over in an Ayckbourn comedy, so it should be no surprise that "How The Other Half Loves" grabs hold of the institution of marriage and gives it a good shake. One little white lie (to cover up an affair) starts this engine hurtling down the tracks. Fiona (Donna Sorbello) tells her easily deluded husband (Ron Ritchell) that she's been out late at night on a mission of mercy to console the distraught wife of one of his philandering employees. It is really she, of course, who is cheating with yet another of her husband's workers --- a dangerous course under any circumstances, but doubly so in Ayckbourn's mischievous handsbecause he contrives to bring them all together for dinner.
You can imagine the mayhem: the maligned couple without a clue, the misinformed spouses playing catch-up, and the guilty parties working overtime to cover up. Polly Hogan's miraculous production outstrips even the original London version, which was performed on an expansive stage. The intimate Lyric Stage space adds immeasurably to the frantic intensity, with actors just missing each other by millimeters as they intrsect each other's trajectories. Janie Fleigle's singular living room/dining room set, you see, is populated by two couples, each of which is unaware of the other. But the audience is able to observe both households at exactly the same time because, counter to the laws of physics but not the laws of drama, they both occupy the same space. When Ayckbourn plots the hilarious dinner party scenes, even the guests are shared. Suffice it to say that Hogan's comic vision is so focused, two tables manage to get a laugh.
"To play Ayckbourn's characters properly," says the former National Theatre director Peter Hall, "you have to dig deep, be serious, and then get laughed at. It wounds the personality" ... because above all, the audience must believe these silly people and their hopeless spiral into chaos. One false move and the spell is broken. The Lyric cast is a dream. Every cog in the machine turns with precise timing, led by premiere comedienne Dona Sorbello as the naughty, haughty Fiona who starts the tinder smouldering. Ron Ritchell too delivers a bravura performance as Fiona's deliciously dense dusband. When dawn finally breaks, it's only after a long and arduous battle with the facts. Again director Hogan triumphs with a heartfelt and surprisingly moving reconcilliation scene for Ritchell and Sorbello (softly lit by Richard Jeter). Then it's back to farce.
Michael Walsh is Fiona's wry, macho lover with Denise Cormer as his exasperated spouse. Part of the fun is watching the neglected wives come into their own. James Walker and Marilyn Mays are a treat as th3e innocent bystanders sucked into the comic vortex. All complimentary nerves and twitches, the two struggle helplessly to extricate themselves, but Ayckbourn's flypaper is pretty sticky stuff.
Jana Howland's costumes are character perfect, from Fiona's elegant designer dresses to the slouchy working class duds for the "other half" of the cast. You can see the seeds of Ayckbourn's "The Norman Conquests" in "How The Other Half Loves" --- which makes me wish the Lyric would tackle the trilogy as soon as possible, now that our appetites have been so wonderfully whetted.