You wouldn’t want him vetting texts for libel, or drafting your will. You certainly wouldn’t want to find him near a courtroom. Pale and tongue-tied, with a precariously knotted bow tie and a perpetually breathless air, the junior solicitor Tristram Watson seems an unlikely candidate for a law career. You’d be more likely to get a coherent legal opinion from a marshmallow with a stutter.
From the moment he appears onstage, actor Matthew McGee’s flustered, stammering Tristram is the funniest element in Constellation Theatre Company’s season opener, the Alan Ayckbourn farce “Taking Steps.” Not that McGee’s performance is the show’s sole asset: Given an effective in-the-round staging by director Allison Arkell Stockman, and showcasing a winning performance by Matthew R. Wilson as a smug businessman, “Taking Steps” is an affable package of droll dialogue, loopy characterizations, amusing physical comedy and a gimmick (more on that later). Clocking in at two hours and 40 minutes, the production feels extremely long, but the scenes don’t drag, exactly: There’s just a lot of talk and stage business — enough to try the patience of farce-o-phobes — and the pacing is brisk but not lickety-split.
Premiered in the U.K. in 1979, “Taking Steps” chronicles mishaps and misunderstandings among self-absorbed people in a rambling manor house. Roland Crabbe (Wilson) is the egoistic bucket magnate who wants to buy the property, which was once a brothel. “Very successful men should live in very big houses. Am I right?” he demands of the overwhelmed Tristram, who has arrived to help with the real estate deal.
As Roland negotiates over the house — filled with aptly genteel, musty furniture, courtesy of scenic designer A.J. Guban — Roland’s wife Elizabeth (Tia Shearer), a former dancer, is trying to flee her marriage, with help from her brother Mark (Dylan Myers), a would-be fishing store owner. (Fishing, he proclaims reverently, is “like Transcendental Meditation with an end product.”) Add in Mark’s dissatisfied fiancee Kitty (Megan Graves), a desperate-to-sell landlord (Doug Wilder) and a rumor of a ghost, and the result is squabbling and mix-ups on all three floors of the building.
Which brings us to the gimmick. In his stage directions, Ayckbourn specifies that the manor’s three floors, and the connecting staircases, should be depicted on a single level. As executed in Stockman’s production, this notion is less funny than it sounds: The areas representing the different floors occupy more or less discrete sections of the stage here (Ayckbourn writes that the areas should overlap), limiting the humor of the set-up to a repeated gag in which the actors mime staircase-scaling with mincing, jogging steps. The device gets old quickly.
But there are tangier bits of shtick, including a bouncing-on-loose-floorboards moment that might suit a Buster Keaton movie, and a memorably goofy fight scene involving a motorcycle helmet. Strolling around snootily as Roland, delivering pompous quips, Wilson displays terrific comic timing. The lanky Myers adeptly channels Mark’s opinionated nerdiness, and Graves’s Kitty segues nicely from hapless to feisty.
Shearer’s Elizabeth seems a little more exaggerated than the other characters — she executes a little jig of fury at one point — and this can be jarring. Admittedly, the character prides herself on being a vibrant spirit — a quality reflected in her fluorescent orange boots, psychedelic-colored ballet rehearsal skirt and other eye-catching attire.
Costume designer Kendra Rai supplies other witty touches: When Tristram first shows up, he’s wearing a woolly scarf and a winter hat with earflaps and ties, as though prepared for an Arctic trek rather than an English business meeting. It’s an early hint of the entertainment this character will deliver.
by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman; assistant director, Ashley Ivey; lighting design, Cory Ryan Frank; sound, Brendon Vierra; properties, Kevin Laughon; fight choreography, Matthew R. Wilson. Two hours and 40 minutes. Through Oct. 7 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th Street NW. For information, call 202-204-7741; for tickets, call 800-494-8497; or visit www.constellationtheatre.org.