Arts & Events

‘Absent Friends’ at Masquers Playhouse

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Wednesday February 04, 2009 - 06:26:00 PM

When Pamela Ciochetti, as Marge in the Masquers’ production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends, calls Evelyn (Michelle Pond) and John’s (Philip Sales) baby (played by typecast Daniel Campbell) “Walter,” and is corrected sharply: “Wayne!”—she defensively says, “I thought his name was Walter ...” “Come on!” declares Evelyn, “You can’t have a baby named Walter!” “Well,” replies Marge, “Somebody must’ve done!” 

Like a vaudeville routine mysteriously unmilked, this quick exchange shows something of Ayckbourn’s impeccable comic sense. His characters are all eccentrically buried in themselves, each at right angles to the others. Give them some rope and they’ll happily go hang, trying to slip the noose around an-other’s head. But unlike  

most—dread word—situation comedy, the craziest statements and vignettes are delivered briskly, blindly, as if natural in this kingdom of one-eyed women and men. Tension builds, becomes unbearable—and the hostess briefly breaks down, bawling that she should’ve joined the Mounties. Or there’s a spree of outrageous slapstick, but all on the other end of a phone conversation. The descriptions of what, if enacted onstage, wouldn’t bring a laugh, are very funny indeed. 

Angela Mason, who once toured in a British production of this “real time’ ... grown-up comedy about married life,” directs the play in just the way she sees it: “drawing you into the living room rather like a telephoto lens focusing on the characters as they unravel.” She also reveals the author himself once was in such a predicament... 

Which is: In the midst of a milieu of middle-aged friends and neighbors, all talking about each other and carrying on behind their opposite number’s back—when they aren’t unloading suspicions and bellyaches in the form of loaded confidences to whomever will listen—are told their former neighbor and old friend (though some cast doubts on his claim to that honor), Colin (Simon Patton), is dropping by for the first time in eight years. What will they say to him? Especially as Colin’s fiancée of a year, who none of them ever met, has recently drowned. 

Colin, from the moment of his arrival, oblivious to all the pussyfooting around him—and, indeed, to everything else—proves serene, in fact hale, hearty and well-met. Unxious, banal and sentimental, he merely wants to wish good cheer to his never forgotten, beloved friends. They, in turn, are reduced to misery—the misery they live in—by his sunny well-wishes.  

The whole catastrophe and its meltdown is enacted in that living room, of Diana (Katina Letheule) and Paul’s (Michael Clark) upscale home, well-designed by Dave Wilkerson and lit by Renee Echavez, with sound by Joseph Ponder and costumes by Jo Lusk. The ensemble makes a fine gang of inmates for such a trophy asylum. 

It’s easy to see from this, the first of Ayckbourn’s now-signature “darker, richly tragicomic works,” why he is “celebrated around the world ... the most successful-in-his-own-lifetime playwright there has ever been, including Shakespeare.” He holds up a highly silvered glass to the hysterias and hollow complacencies of post-modern middle-class life. No exaggerations, no carnival mirrors necessary to capture the distortions of this sideshow. And no mistake that the great director Alain Resnais has adapted Ayckbourn to film.  

The program carries a poignant dedication “to two very dear absent friends who passed away in 2008—Dory Ehrlich [who lived in Berkeley] and John Stenger.” 




8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 28 at Masquers Playhouse, 105 Park Place, Richmond. $18. 232-4031.