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Out of the shallows

Times Staff Writer

Anyone looking for a few good laughs need look no further than South Coast Repertory. That’s where Alan Ayckbourn’s first hit, “Relatively Speaking,” is creating more laughs per scene than any other play since Ayckbourn’s second big hit, “How the Other Half Loves,” raised the roof in 1997.

Unlike some of Ayckbourn’s later works, “Relatively Speaking” doesn’t offer an innovative structure or incisive social commentary. On paper, it looks like a standard farce, driven by misunderstandings that arise from an illicit affair.

But if you’ve tired of farces in which shallow characters frenetically scurry through bedroom doors, “Relatively Speaking” offers a satisfying alternative.

Its characters are more recognizable as real human beings. Their mishaps are plausible enough for us to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours. And although no one would say this is a deep play, a few of its moments evoke a sense of a larger human condition.

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One of the men in the play briefly speaks of his terror that he will forget who he is during the night. The characters admire the permanency of trees, in contrast to their own increasingly unhinged personalities. Together with the title, sentiments like these suggest a society in which very little can be taken for granted.

Some of Ayckbourn’s mid-'60s contemporaries, including Harold Pinter and Joe Orton, made the same point more sharply. But it’s visible here too, and the laughs are richer as a result.

Director David Emmes doesn’t try to fill in the play’s faint outlines of a larger theme. But he allows the actors to breathe without pushing them into the kind of rhythms that can dehumanize farce.

Douglas Weston plays Greg, the man who worries about losing his identity, as an earnest, clear-eyed fellow who has little patience with deceptive or retrograde behavior in others. Naturally, it’s Greg who is in the dark more than anyone else by the play’s end.

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Greg is very taken with his new girlfriend, Ginny (Jennifer Dundas). In a moment somewhat reminiscent of a Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda straight-shooter, he decides he wants to marry her. She’s going to visit her parents; can’t he come along?

He isn’t so naive, however, that he fails to pick up a few indications that Ginny may not have completely extricated herself from her last affair. Dundas is adept at demonstrating both the desperation and the skill with which Ginny makes her frequent cover-up attempts throughout the play.

The action adjourns to the country home of an older couple, Philip (Richard Doyle) and Sheila (Linda Gehringer), whom Greg believes to be Ginny’s parents.

Without giving away any further details, let’s just say that Ayckbourn makes it clear that the subsequent misunderstandings stem, at least in part, from the polite reserve of the English middle-class.

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This is best illustrated by Gehringer’s Sheila, who is determined to retain a sense of civility, even if she must sacrifice clarity. With her voice pitched high and tweedy and her hair in a conservative flip, Gehringer is a hoot as the English matron who suddenly catches on, late in the play, to the unsettling nature of what’s going on. Her tall stature adds comedy when she is face to face with the diminutive Dundas.

Doyle mightily strives to retain a straight-faced appearance of propriety, despite overwhelming odds against that possibility. All of the performances are beautifully timed. No explosion occurs too soon.

Nephelie Andonyadis’ sets and costumes are letter-perfect. No sound designer is credited, but an expert selection of ‘60s pop hits between scenes enhances the pacing. And the ‘60s dance steps during the curtain call send the audience out of the theater on a giddy high note.

*

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‘Relatively Speaking’

Where: South Coast Repertory, Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Tuesdays-Sundays, 7:45 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m.

Ends: April 6

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Price: $27-$54

Contact: (714) 708-5555

Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Douglas Weston...Greg

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Jennifer Dundas...Ginny

Richard Doyle...Philip

Linda Gehringer...Sheila

By Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by David Emmes. Sets and costumes by Nephelie Andonyadis. Lighting by Lonnie Alcaraz. Stage manager Jamie A. Tucker

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