Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Though sociology today persists in treading rudely on the heels of the comedy of manners, that frivolous but revealing genre still flourishes is its most successful practitioner.
"Absent Friends," one of his most recent hits, opened a five-week run last night at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, where its recognition of middle-class foibles raises those lovely giggles that are the deep satisfaction of those who prefer the chuckles of empathy to the guffaws of cruelty.
Under the direction of Eric Thompson, who has staged such other Ayekbourn comedies as "Absurd Person Singular" and "The Norman Conquests," the cast of six includes such well-know American names as Elli Wallach. Anne Jackson and Lee Richardson. Their efforts will please you comfortably.
Quite typically, Ayckbourn is dealing with a situation which should pose no problems but will. Diana (Miss Jackson) has decided that this afternoon at teatime (eariv-osh) would be the right time for old friends to rally round Colin, whose fiancee was, oh, dear, drowned.
There is Evelyn (Dave hodges), the other-side-of-the-tracks mummy who married John (Jocob Brooke). When Diana remarks on how tightly wrapped up in his carriage is Evelyn's baby Wayne - "He'll smother" - Evelyn looks up from her sleazy magazine to mutter: "He doesn't need much air." Later Evelyn will explain. "I'm gonna fetch Wayne in," pause a bit and go on. "It's raining."
There is Marge who buys terrible things she discovers in shop windows and who will spend much of her time on the phone with her absent, ailing husband. Gordon: "I don't know what I want children for, living with Gordon."
There is Paul. Diana's husband, who boasts I "never forget anything" and of course does because, after all, it comes out Diana didn't want to marry him. She wanted to be a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman.
Evelyn's John is pleased as punch about everything and so, to the shock of all, is the belated Colin (Wallach: "I'm not early am I?"), who carries with him rafts of pictures of his drowned love and is perfectly delighted to talk on and on about how happy he IS that he had so great a love. And when Colin isn't thus occupied he does far, far worese.
We have, then, a detached, observant yet patiently accepting view of well-meaning, if egregiously egoistic, souls doing good. This is comedy of manners in the true sense. Since kitchen dramas are preferred by solemn pundits. Ayokbourn obliges, as often he does, by keeping a kitchen in view, and Edward Burbridge has caught Yorkshire suburbia very precisely in his set.
Tuesday night's performance will, I trust, be bettered. The storm and the Elsenhower's new openign night curtain (7 at openings, 7:30 all other evenings) probably was unsettling before an unsettled house.
One can accept efforts to provide accents just mid-Atlantic enought to suggest the locale, though the class distinctions, here fairly subtle, do get lost.
What is lacking is security on the part of the players and assurance in the audience that, yes, this is meant for laughter. The playing, too, should give us some confidence that at least once in the past these people, Evelyn excepted, did have closer links than at first appear. Ayckbourn's joke rests on the notion that these people are at least looking forward a little to getting together. Their alienation seems to set in a sight; watching it take hold is Ayckbourn's dry reality and the whole action of the comedy.
Wallach supplies character reasons for seeming to be a faintly smug chip-munk and Jackson (Mrs. Wallach) rises beautifully to Diana's dreams of the Canadian Mounties. As Marge, Meg Wynn Owen (who has Hazel Bellamy in "Upstairs, Downstairs") will be fine when the group congeals and I found Hodges a bitter delight as Evelyn. Lee Richardson's controlled dismay as Paul seemed to me the most rewarding of the cast.
Friends of light comedy will not want to absent themselves from "Absent Friends."