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Theater Review   Ackbourn's First Smash, Back At Its American Birthplace



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Theater Review   Ackbourn’s First Smash, Back At Its American Birthplace

By Julie Stern

WESTPORT — Alan Ayckbourn has been called the British Neil Simon. Born in 1939 he has written seventy full length plays, along with a bunch of other stuff. As a teenager he dropped out of school, ran away from his highbrow, upper class home, and joined a theater company in the seaside resort town of Scarborough on the northeast coast of England. At 16 he was a gofer; the following year he was allowed to play bit parts.

When he complained to his boss, company director Stephen Joseph, that he wanted roles with more substance, he was told to go write his own play with a part for himself that he liked better.

The young man did, and came up with a play that drew the biggest crowd of the season. It rains a lot in England, especially along the coast. When people go for a week’s holiday at the beach and it starts to pour, they duck inside the theater to stay dry. Joseph advised Ackbourn that he should at least give them a play that would make them laugh.

They’ve been laughing ever since.

Relatively Speaking, which opened in London in 1969, and premiered in America at Westport Country Playhouse a year later, was Ackbourn’s first smash hit, and it was as a kind of tribute that the playhouse brought it back this season. The Playhouse recently finished a new offering of the show, with performances wrapping on July 28.

The plot revolves around a young London couple who have been lovers for a month. Greg is contemplating marriage, but Ginny is keeping much of her past a secret, including the fact that she is still being pursued by the older married man with whom she had recently been involved.

There is certainly enough evidence to rouse Greg’s suspicions, including a strange pair of men’s slippers under her bed, seven bunches of flowers recently delivered, a drawer filled with unopened candy boxes, and mysterious telephone calls that are abruptly disconnected when Greg answers. But Ginny blithely offers mundane explanations, and announces that she is going up to the country for the day, to see her parents. Can Greg come with her? No. Her parents don’t like surprises…

Having found an address written on a matchbook, however (which Ginny explains is her parents’ address; she wrote it down for someone else who forgot to take it, she says), Greg decides to go to the country to meet them anyhow, and to ask for their daughter’s hand.

It quickly becomes apparent to the audience that Philip and Sheila are not Ginny’s parents, that Philip had been cheating on his wife, while she has been trying to make him jealous by inventing a young admirer. The misconceptions and entanglements that follow are the stuff of farce, and, as played by a wonderful quartet of actors — in Westport’s production is was James Waterston as Greg, Geneva Carr as Ginny, Paxton Whitehead as Philip and Cecilia Hart as Sheila — can make the audience happy even on a sunny day.

Along with the Neil Simon comparison, it has been said of Ackbourn that he is the second most produced playwright in Britain, next only to Shakespeare. And like Shakespeare, having begun his theater career as an actor, he has a deep interest in and understanding of human character. Thus while his plays are farces, they depend not merely on coincidence and accident but also on human nature and manners.

Like Jane Austen, Ackbourn is interested in how people behave, how they treat each other, because of who they are. This rings as real and true as the caprices of the plot are contrived and exaggerated. The result is of course mere fluff, but it is highly entertaining and enjoyable fluff, and a great summer entertainment.

James Noone’s highly realistic set designs, capturing both Ginny’s squalid London flat, and Philip and Sheilas’ brick-walled suburban garden, added to the experience. Guided by director John Tillinger’s sure hand, the whole thing was quite a treat.

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