It's not every day that we get an Alan Ayckbourn play on local stages, but it is definitely uncommon to get two productions of the same one running concurrently. If the question on some lips is how does the staging of "Woman In Mind" that opened over the weekend at the Tiffany Theatre in West Hollywood stack up against the one that opened the weekend before at South Coast Repertory, the answer, one is happy to report, is that it stacks up well.
That's good news for Ayckbourn fans, who'll find much to relish in either staging, significantly and with equal pleasure, the performances of the headliners: Helen Mirren (at the Tiffany) and Kandis Chappell (South Coast). But interesting differences do exist, both in their own and in supporting roles, shifting the values of the play.
"Woman in Mind" tracks an unhappy English housewife's gradual descent into psychosis--as unlikely a subject as one might scare up for a comedy. Middle-aged Susan (Mirren) is married to Gerald (Nick Tate), a boring country vicar. His smugness is only exceeded by that of his sister Muriel (Angela Paton), who's moved in with them and seems intent on adding gastrointestinal distress to the rest of the conjugal misery by helping in the kitchen. Susan and Gerald also have a son, Rick (J. D. Cullum), who has gone off to join a sect rather than have to converse with Mum and Dad.
Susan's way of coping with all this is to create a fantasy family: the perfect husband (John Getz), brother (Tony Carlin) and daughter (Marsha Dietlein), who spend every waking hour making Susan feel loved, who marry beautiful people, dress to the nines, drink Dom Perignon and play tennis on their splendid, large estate.
But when Susan has an unscheduled encounter with a garden rake in her drab little vicarage garden and knocks herself out, fantasy and reality merge. The mitigator is Bill (Paxton Whitehead), an accident-prone country doctor who is called in and has long harbored a secret love for Susan. He wants to help, but even he, poor bumbler, can only watch as Susan grows less and less able to rescind her fantasies. And thereby hangs the tale.
Aside from Mirren, the company's great asset is Whitehead as the doctor. Tall and loopy, he brings to the role that wistful mix of solicitous care and earnest ineptitude that characterize his kind of comedy. He even creates some where none is written, almost banging into a wall as he tries to leave the garden, for instance, or nearly stumbling over that stone frog not once but twice.
Since all of his scenes are with Susan, they provide tremendous support for Mirren's delicate, almost fragile Susan, an uncommonly attractive woman desperately stranded in the wrong life. Where Chappell gives a brittle, astonished, deeply angry edge to Susan's anguish at South Coast, Mirren lends it a sense of terminal resignation. Her subtext is languid and her ironies more bitter than feisty.
Both approaches work, though the intimations of madness are more graspable, funny and frightening in Chappell's almost slatternly Susan. But if Whitehead so grandly enriches the context at the Tiffany and provides such potent support as Bill, Tate's Gerald drops the ball by falling short of his requisite pomposity and denial.
He's a dry twig, and despite his Australian and British credentials, goes in and out of his English accent as through a revolving door. In the long run, the performance misses the subtleties of this character in pretty much the same way.
Not so Paton's dumpy Muriel, all nasty deprecation, unctuous smiles and sandpaper--or Cullum's Rick, a sober mix of weakness, inferiority and honesty. As for the fantasy trio of Getz, Carlin and Dietlein, decked out in Michael Eisenhower's fashionable Armani beiges, tennis whites and Ascot grays, they give off an aptly beatific essence of idle wealth.
Mirren herself is simply dressed in a modest floral dress that feels right for this interpretation. And the two worlds of the play skillfully intermingle in Yael Pardess' small or grandiose gardens, enhanced by Michael Gilliam's warm/cold lighting schemes and Jon Gottlieb's measured sound.
Director Dennis Erdman has many times demonstrated his aptitude for this kind of jaundiced, hilarious humor, not only when he staged Ayckbourn's "How the Other Half Loves" in this theater in 1988, but also in his many productions of Christopher Durang's plays and Joe Orton's "Loot."
Ironically, in this, the darkest of Ayckbourn comedies, darker even than the apocalyptic "Henceforward . . . " because it is more personally focused, that blackness eludes him. Just barely. This "Woman In Mind" is a shade of deep charcoal in which, up to the last and tragic minute, there is more sense of fun than of the fiery furnace awaiting the unhinging of one mind.
Helen Mirren: Susan
Paxton Whitehead: Bill
John Getz: Andy
Marsha Dietlein: Lucy
Tony Carlin: Tony
Nick Tate: Gerald
Angela Paton: Muriel
J. D. Cullum: Rick
Producers Paula Holt, Perla Karney in association with Patricia L. Glaser. Co-producer Jeff Levinson. Director Dennis Erdman. Playwright Alan Ayckbourn. Set Yael Pardess. Lights Michael Gilliam. Costumes Michael Eisenhower. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager Ronn Goswick.