How The Other Half Loves

By Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Polly Hogan
At the Lyric Stage
Clarendon St, Boston Through May 18th

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The Lyric Stage has revived the Alan Ayckbourn play that was one of the Lyric's hits when the company was housed in the cramped loft on Charles Street: "How The Other Half Loves". About all I remember from the previous production is that it was very funny, and that director Polly Hogan made the surreal centerpiece of it--- a ghastly dinner party where a flummoxed couple is being entertained by two different hosts in two very different households on subsequent nights in adjacent spaces at the very same time-- work marvelously well on the old Lyric's oddly-shaped stage. The new Lyric isn't odd at all, but its three-quarter thrust stage does present a challenge when used to stage a farce. There is a paucity of doors to slam.

Hogan has risen to the challenge beautifully. When a door must slam, one is provided to slam with authority. Instead of using, as previously, a bifurcated staging that emphasizes the class divide between the patrician Fosters and the plebeian Phillipses, Hogan has mingled the households. Janie Fliegel has designed a combination set where upper-class decor morphs into lower-middle clutter, and both couples inhabit it oblivious to each other and to whatever furniture and props aren't shared. The wonderful skill with which the cast manages to be alive to everything in "their" environment and totally ignore objects, words, and bodies that are part of the "other" one not only makes the duel realities convincing but turns out to be a dandy metaphor, too: it makes visible the tendency humans have of seeing only what they expect to see and being blind to everything and everyone else. This tendency accounts nicely for both the spouse who doesn't suspect the adultery right under his nose as well as the spouse whose suspicious glance finds signs of betrayal everywhere.

Leading the cast is, appropriately enough, Artistic Director Ron Ritchell as Frank Foster, one of those sublimely self-confident and well-meaning but utterly inept upper-class men the British class system seems to slot into managerial positions. The motor of the play is Foster's paternalistic urge to shape up the personal lives of two of his business subordinates, Bob Phillips (Michael Walsh) and William Featherstone (James L. Walker). Foster has only the most tenuous relationship with the material world -- he can never find anything, and everything he touches breaks -- but the old fool knows exactly how an English gentleman ought to feel and behave, and he is determined to lead by example. Ron Ritchell knows exactly how a character in an English farce ought to feel and behave, and his leadership by example must be marvelously effective because the rest of the Lyric cast clips through Ayckbourn's contrivances of plot and extravagances of character as if they, too, have spent half a lifetime perfecting their technique.

Presumably in the office Frank Foster has a competent secretary who does the firm's actual work. At home Foster has his elegant wife Fiona (Donna Sorbello), who patiently combines the functions of governess and valet to keep her charge muddling through. Fiona has enough energy and intelligence left over from acting as Frank Foster's enabler to carry on affairs of her own. She is so accustomed to her husband's bland assumption that everything is as it should be in this best of all possible worlds that she is caught without an alibi when her husband questions her as to why it was that she was out until three in the morning. Improvising wildly, Fiona invents a late-night marriage-counseling session with Mary Featherstone (Marilyn Mays). Poor mousy Mary suspects that her husband William has another woman, Fiona tells Frank -- thus setting off Frank Foster's paternal desire to put things right and his infernal capacity to get everything wrong.

The subordinate pairs-- the non-coms as compared to the born-to-the-manor officer-class coupling of the Forsters -- are nicely differentiated. The Featherstones --- flexible Walker as the prissy accountant/handy man who is the unlikely object of Fiona's fertile invention and rubber-faced Mays as the socially dyslexic wife who is her husband's major home improvement project---are eager to conform to the patterns laid down by their betters . Office Romeo Bob Phillips and his slovenly wife Teresa (Denise Cormier) -- barely offer lip service to the boss's agenda. They are lusty creatures focused on immediate gratification, inclined to childish tantrums and flurries of spite . Once these six are caught up in interaction, multiple misinterpretations flourish, mishaps abound, and laughter accumulates.

There is a silent seventh character, Baby Benjamin Phillips, who is the subject of parental rows, and on stage is put down for a nap, cleaned up after, shunted to the side, parked in his stroller, and probably doused with something to keep him quiet during all the adult uproar. Sort of puts it all in perspective, the kid does.