Alan Ackbourne, the author of more than 70 plays, has frequently been referred to as the most prolific playwright in the English language. His “Absurd Person Singular,” one of several plays he wrote in 1972, runs through Sunday, November 30, at Bristol Riverside Theater in Bristol, PA. “Absurd Person Singular” is Ackbourne’s 12th play, and apparently the first of his comedies to have a dark side. It follows three couples on three successive Christmas Eves — Act One on last Christmas, Act Two on this Christmas, and Act Three on next Christmas — each time at a party given by a different couple. One of the intriguing aspects of the play is that the audience never sees the actual party; each scene takes place in one of the couple’s kitchens. Off-stage voices often make it clear that beyond the closed door there is merriment or irritation — “Where on earth have our host and hostess gone to?” — but the audience meets only the three couples who give the parties.
The changes in the couples’ status and situations provide the underlying structure of the play. The first act takes place in Sidney (Dan Hodge) and Jane’s (Kate Hampton) scrupulously clean kitchen. Jane, compulsively neat, is more concerned with stains on the floor and the counters than with receiving her guests; her husband barely notices her in his rush to attend to the guests and, incidentally, to encourage them to give him a leg up in his business.
The second act takes place in Geoffrey (Jack Koenig) and Eva’s (Susan Riley Stevens) kitchen. Geoffrey is an architect, and a corner of his and Eva’s kitchen is taken up by his work table. His work space seems to dominate the room, with the functional parts of the kitchen something of a mess. This act is a monument to misunderstanding: Eva tries several times to commit suicide, and each time someone stops her, not because anyone has the slightest inkling that she is trying to kill herself, but because everyone thinks she is trying to do something else.
The final act takes place in the kitchen of Ronald (Keith Baker) and Marion’s (Lisa Bostnar) large house. Ronald is a banker, and this kitchen clearly was built for a family that either eats out or has servants to prepare the meals. Ronald is, however, facing hard times — the heat has been turned off, and the guests are wearing their coats and shivering.
By the third act fortunes are reversed completely, and the characters cope with the new dynamics of their changed lives. What a difference a year makes.
Keith Baker, Bristol Riverside’s artistic director, plays Ronald, the banker, and as Bristol Riverside regulars have come to expect, does a splendid job. Baker saw this production as an opportunity to bring to the theater the well-known director Gus Kaikkonen, who has an impressive resume as a freelancer and also serves as artistic director of the Peterborough Players in New Hampshire. Kaikkonen chose for the other five parts three actors from the New York area and two from the Philadelphia world.
Lisa Bostnar was most recently seen in New York as Gertrude in an Alvin Epstein production of “Hamlet.” She does a fine job of morphing from a condescending snob to a totally wiped out alcoholic. Jack Koenig, the architect, has worked with Kaikkonen in Peterborough, and has appeared both on and off Broadway. Susan Riley Stevens’ recent experience includes playing Regan in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s “King Lear.” She does an effective job as Eva, who must convince the audience in the second act that she is no longer in the same world as the other characters and that she really intends to kill herself and then in the third act that she is capable of taking charge as her husband falls apart.
Dan Hodge, who plays the wimpy businessman who becomes a financial success, has been seen at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival and New Jersey’s Two River Theater. Kate Hampton, has been seen on Broadway and at other New York venues, as well as in a wide range of regional theaters. All the cast members are adept at acting as if there was nothing out of the ordinary about their absurd behavior.
The sets, designed by Charles Morgan, function as one of the major means of telling the audience about the characters and clarifying what is happening on stage. Morgan has worked frequently with Kaikkonen in Peterborough. The costumes are by Linda Bee Stockton, Bristol Riverside’s resident costumer, the lighting by Eric Larson, another Peterborough veteran.
"Absurd Person Singular," through Sunday, November 30, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. Alan Ayckbourn comedy. $29 to $37. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.