Alan Ayckbourn often has been termed the British Neil Simon due to his prodigious output of plays in a quirky comical vein. South Coast Repertory has yet to mount a Simon show, but has produced myriad Ayckbourn offerings and is quite familiar with the territory.
The latest SCR-Ayckbourn collaboration, opening the new season, is "Absurd Person Singular," a wacky exercise set in three kitchens of the past, present and future and directed by company co-founder David Emmes. It's steeped in black humor — especially the second of the three sequences, wherein one character spends the entire act silently attempting various forms of suicide as the others bustle with various chores around her.
As the lights come up, Jane (Kathleen Early) and Sidney (J.D. Cullum) are preparing a Christmas party for two other couples — three, actually, although the third pair never are seen. The hosts are a middle-class duo (class figures prominently in English theater) and wound extremely tight — he's overly controlling, she's frustrated and frantic.
In the second act, the spotlight shifts to a run-down apartment and a younger pair, an unsuccessful architect (Alan Smyth) and his weary, disillusioned wife (Tessa Auberjonois), who devises various methods of offing herself as the guests perform menial tasks, oblivious of her plight. It's the clear highlight of the evening, steeped in physical comedy of the darkest hue.
The finale focuses on the third couple, an upper-class pair whose kitchen is plush and carpeted (Robert Curtis Brown and Colette Kilroy). They're living separate lives in separate bedrooms and she's become a total lush. The arrival of other guests — and their ridiculous "game" — throws the glum situation into farcical turmoil.
As the organizer and "fixer" of the three couples, Cullum shines a cut above the others, all of whom are excellent, with his manic attempts to put situations aright. He's matched only by Auberjonois' remarkable suicide-seeking machinations — an outstanding performance without a single line of dialogue.
Early distinguishes herself in the opening sequence as she engages in party preparations which veer into "I Love Lucy" territory, including getting herself soaking wet running errands in the rain. Smyth, who has the least to do, establishes himself as a bit of a cad in that scene, setting the stage for the uproarious second segment.
Brown's stuffy character, similar to Frank Foster in Ayckbourn's "How the Other Half Loves," functions effectively a beat or two behind the others — save for his "shocking" turn in the second act. Kilroy establishes herself as a high-class prude prior to her descent into the bottle in the final sequence.
All three locales are strikingly different, the results of Sara Ryung Clement's terrific set designing. Nephelie Andonyadis's costumes and Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz's lighting effects contribute heavily to the show's atmosphere.
"Absurd Person Singular" is 40 years old this year and is just getting around to an SCR production. To which it must be added, better late than never.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
What: "Absurd Person Singular"
Where: South Coast Repertory Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Cost: $20 to $68