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Brit Wit

Joking Apart Conjures an England That's Forever Green

Brad Makarowski and Dana Bennison in Joking Apart.

By Jack Purdy | Posted 6/27/2001

Joking Apart

Alan Ayckbourn

There's something curiously old-fashioned about the work of England's most prolific contemporary playwright, Alan Ayckbourn. You'd never guess, for example, that his 1979 work Joking Apart, now at Theatre on the Hill in Westminster, was written during the triumphant, reactionary early days of Margaret Thatcher's rule. The upheavals of the outside world never intrude into the English country garden setting where the entire play takes place over the span of some 12 years. Ayckbourn's mostly affluent characters are like those of P.G. Wodehouse--they dwell in a realm of comic artificiality where every day is a holiday and drinks are always waiting on the veranda.

Which makes Ayckbourn's play a perfect offering for Theatre on the Hill, whose own atmosphere is deliciously redolent of the old days of summer stock. Both the play and the theater are united in their desire to only entertain, and for the most part, both succeed admirably.

Joking Apart takes place entirely at the home of Richard and Anthea (Brad Makarowski and Dana Parker Bennison), who live in unwedded bliss, with Anthea's two children by her former husband, in a restored vicarage deep in the countryside. They are a couple of near-frightening competence--Richard is a huge success at an import business without ever seeming to do a lick of work, while Anthea is beautiful, vivacious, and capable of doing 10 things at once, all perfectly. Over the course of the play, they repeatedly play host to the same circle of friends: Sven (Ryan Murray), Richard's Finnish partner in the import business and a man whose certitude is exceeded only by his envy; Sven's wife, Olive (Jeanne Favara), who believes her husband can do no wrong; Brian (Will Woodrow), an old friend of Anthea's who now works for Richard and Sven; Hugh (Ryan Bergeron), the dithering vicar of the local Anglican parish; and Louise (Carolyn Castiglia), Hugh's emotionally fragile wife. Rounding out the cast is Nell Teare, who plays three of Brian's girlfriends and, finally, Richard and Anthea's daughter, Debbie.

Over two acts, beginning with that most English of holidays, Guy Fawkes Day, Ayckbourn shows how all of Richard and Anthea's friends, with the exception of good-hearted Hugh, become ever more deeply resentful of the golden couple, even as they help themselves unstintingly to food, drink, and games of croquet and tennis. Each has his or her own reasons, most of them petty, for envy and jealousy, which they trade with one another out of earshot of Richard and Anthea. But they obviously can't stay away--the unending party atmosphere has them narcotized. And each begins showing the impact of that narcotizing, with Sven growing bitter over Richard's superior business acumen and Olive and Louise feeling ever more overshadowed by Anthea's forceful femininity.

Ayckbourn leavens what could be sheer bitterness by making Anthea and Richard blissfully unaware of their superhuman status, and by liberally interjecting farcical elements, such as Brian's poor choices in girlfriends and Hugh and Louise's social gaucheries. The country churchman has long been a figure of fun in England, and Ayckbourn ruthlessly exploits the stereotype. Indeed, Hugh is drawn so broadly that it leads Bergeron into the unfortunate choice of playing the entire part at a high-pitched screech, thereby overwhelming what should have been the play's most sympathetic figure. His is the only bum note in an otherwise solid cast.

Joking Apart is unarguably a fine summer evening of theater for Anglophiles, who will undoubtedly walk out into the Westminster night with visions of that other, older Westminster dancing, like sugarplums on Boxing Day, through their heads.

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