A Gardener in Love

By Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Polly Hogan
At Lyric West Theater
Pine Manor College, Brookline MA - June 1999

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Lyric West is concluding its abbreviated season in residence at Pine Manor with two plays from Alan Ayckbourn's "Intimate Exchanges", which is a related series of eight scripts constructed so that all the roles in them can be performed by two acting virtuosi. The author seems to assume that while all the other characteristics such as class, age, temperament, accent and physique will be illusions out of the actors' ample bag of tricks, gender will be supplied by nature: one actor will be male and one female. But I suppose that given sufficiently flexible performers even gender could be part of the artifice, since the technique of construction is already close to Charles Ludlum's in his gender bending two hander "Irma Vep". With only two actors every exit and re-entrance becomes a bit of a stunt, and the idea that the stunt could be repeated throughout eight plays without growing tiresome is rather mind boggling. Be that as it may, Lyric West is presenting just two of the set of plays: "A Gardener in Love" and "The Self-Improving Woman", scripts which trace the divergent paths of four characters' relationships consequent to a choice made early on. The characters are Toby Teasdale, the recently appointed headmaster of a bottom drawer Public (that means private) School; Celia Teasdale, Toby's put-upon wife; Lionel Hepplewick, the school's gardener/groundskeeper; and the Teasdale's part time household help and Lionel's part time girlfriend, Sylvia Bell. ("The Self-Improving Woman" adds a fifth character, Lionel's father Joe.) Marilyn Mays and James L. Walker play them all, in three indoor/outdoor settings designed by the ever inventive Janie E. Howland. Under Polly Hogan's deft direction, the quick changes go like clockwork.

Mays and Walker, who are prime movers in Wisconsin's St. Croix Festival Theatre Company, are multitalented and inventive performers. Mays in a wig was physically unrecognizable when she entered in her second role as young lower class Sylvia, even though I knew from the program that it had to be the same actress. Walker, without the assistance of a change of wig or make up, was recognizable as the same actor, but totally transformed in voice and body. The most impressive trick of all was a wholly convincing offstage conversation between the two different selves embodied by the single actor. Both Mays and Walker are experienced Ayckbourn players, with his distinctive timing and British turns of phrase so well ingrained that they can play infinite subtle gradations on them. Lyric West's Polly Hogan is the Boston area's resident Ayckbourn expert, having been responsible for ten area premieres of the author's work in three different theatre spaces in her company's previous incarnation as the Lyric Stage, before the late unpleasant split over artistic differences. I have seen Ayckbourn in London's West End, and as performed under the author's direction by his own home rep company from the small (yet, I am told, government subsidized to the tune of a million pounds) theatre in Scarborough where Ayckbourn writes and develops his plays. Lyric West's production has the authentic Ayckbourn style. Whether one enjoys that style-- whether one finds the characters engaging and the jokes funny-- is largely a matter of one's level of comfort with the peculiar English combination of repression and conformity wherein, because they have squelched their natural impulses in favor of what they take to be the proper attitudes for those of their station, people who are the most explosive bundles of tics, rituals, and eccentricities believe themselves to be perfectly ordinary and reasonable.  Because these characters expect proper behavior from those around them, they are perpetually either clueless or shocked.

I find these characters fascinating, and the delightfully odd turns of phrase Ayckbourn lends them with which to express themselves quite funny. While I see little resemblance to myself or my family in them, their frantic chill is no more alien to me than Neil Simon's overheated hustle. (Ayckbourn is often described here as "The English Neil Simon". Both authors' characters do remind me of some of my acquaintance-- and with friends like these, who needs enemies? I enjoyed "A Gardener In Love" thoroughly. My next seat companion, critic Larry Stark, was also in an advanced state of amusement. His review in TheaterMirror noted: "The fact that two people were playing four roles was funny. Their couplings and permutations of possible couplings was funny. What they were saying was funny. It was one more clever Alan Ayckbourn theatrical game, and even the fact that the characters were paper-thin was funny. Yet.. . I sat for half an act amid respectfully smiling people who stubbornly refused to crack a laugh."

I don't understand this. Hogan and her partner/husband Ron Ritchell have been producing and performing Ayckbourn in Boston for more than twenty years, and had built up an enthusiastic following for the English master. Have the author's fans deserted them since their re-location? Is farce not worth a trip to the Western Suburbs? I cannot account otherwise for this matinee's silence-- it seemed to be the same audience that laughed at the merest hint of a joke and wept freely during the Lyric West's January production of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons". I wasn't able to review that splendid production-- I was employed by it as a techie. But I can attest to its effectiveness. I saw the audience's laughter and tears from my perch up in the light booth, and while my own laughter dwindled to smiles over the course of the run, my tears became more copious as the cast dug deeper and deeper. Ritchell and Hogan's audience has always been a "traditional" one, an audience appreciative of the conventions and skills associated with the British literary heritage. Perhaps the "feeling" part of that audience, the audience for tragedy, is the part with the loyalty to follow the company's leaders into suburban exile? Perhaps the "thinking" part, those who are prepared to be amused by English foibles, aren't prepared to exert themselves to indulge their taste in comedy? However that may be, I can only hope that when Lyric West moves again-- the company has been invited to take up residence in a new theatre facility at Mass Bay College next season-- it will be able to rally both parts of its audience and find new audience members to add to it. Otherwise, something at the very center of the experience of live theatre may be threatened with extinction. There is no way that college or community companies can produce the kind of traditional repertoire that is the Ritchell/Hogan specialty at the level the team has achieved through many years of study and practice. As with all such physically based skills, the iron rule is: use it or lose it.