Off-Broadstreet Theater has opened the new year with an Alan Ayckbourn farce, "Relatively Speaking." Ayckbourn has written more than 70 plays, directed some 300 productions, and for over 30 years served as artistic director of the Library Theater in Scarborough. In 1997 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth "for services to the theater." This is not Off-Broadstreet’s first experience with the playwright: some 20 years back the theater presented two plays from his "Norman Conquest Trilogy."

"Relatively Speaking," one of Ayckbourn’s first major successes, originally opened in 1967 but audiences will be unlikely to find it dated. While many farces depend on physical chaos – frequently generated by the unexpected arrival of characters, leading to the term door farces, even slamming-door farces – but "Relatively Speaking" depends for its humor on words.

Ayckbourn’s style, says Robert Thick, who with his wife, Julie, serves as Off-Broadstreet’s producer, "is more closely associated with Oscar Wilde than Ray Cooney" (the author of "Run for Your Wife," the more physical British farce that ended Off-Broadstreet’s 2006-’07 season). The word play starts with the title: which meaning of "relatively" should we be thinking of?

This type of farce also depends on the audience having a better understanding of what is really going on than the characters do. As is typical of the genre, misconceptions abound and multiply in "Relatively Speaking." The heroine, Ginny, who has clearly had her share of illicit relationships, is involved with a young man, Greg, who decides he would like to marry her. She agrees but believes she had best break off relations with the older man she has been most recently having an affair with. Telling Greg she is off to visit her parents and giving him a variety of lame reasons why7 he should not accompany her, she takes off for the country. He finds that she has left behind a slip of paper with the address she is heading toward, and he decides that he will follow her and discuss their plans with her parents.

As it happens Greg arrives at the country house before Ginny and interacts with Philip, her lover, and Sheila, Philip’s wife, on the assumption that they are Ginny’s parents. In the course of the play it becomes clear that Sheila is not an aggrieved wife betrayed by her husband, but has been holding her own in her extramarital activities. When Ginny does arrive the misunderstandings of course multiply, and much of the humor for the audience lies in knowing so many things that the characters don’t. On the other hand, the one thing the audience doesn’t know is how Ayckbourn intends to extricate his characters from their mess, so the audience still has to wait to see how this puzzle can possibly have a positive solution.

Three of the actors in "Relatively Speaking," the theater’s 199th production, are Off-Broadstreet veterans. Lois Carr, who plays Sheila, has both acted and directed at the theater. Alison Quairoli (Ginny), was one of the two wives in "Run for Your Wife," and the caretaker in the dark two-person play, "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard," which opened the current season. Tom Stevenson (Philip), is a veteran of 10 Off-Broadstreet productions. The newcomer to Off-Broadstreet, Brady Dunbar Niederer, plays the naive young hero. They all turn in commendable performances.

Once again Bob Thick has both directed and designed the show, and once again he has given the audience a reason to marvel. The first scene of the first act takes place in Ginny’s London flat, a minimal, plain living space with a bed and very little else, decorative or otherwise, in it. The second scene of the first act and both scenes of the second act take place in the garden of Sheila and Philip’s country home. There is no intermission between the two scenes of the first act, but there is a short blackout during which a few shadowy figures (presumably the actors) rearrange some furniture and flip the interior walls, transforming the stage into "a garden patio leading off from a large house in the Home Counties." That the theater can change the scene so quickly from a cramped interior to a spacious and elegant exterior without any expensive equipment or enormous crews speaks to the special abilities of the Thicks. The serviceable costumes have been designed by Ann Raymond, who also designed the costumes for both "Run for Your Wife" and "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard."

"Relatively Speaking," weekends through Saturday, February 2, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Evening performances Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and a matinee on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. The theater opens for dessert an hour before curtain time. 609-466-2766.

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