A Tale of Two Stories

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British playwright Alan Ayckbourn is the chronicler of an age — as is seen by his characters, who usually inhabit a privileged corner of the British Isles. He lovingly yet often unflinchingly uses humor to reflect the eccentricities and foibles of his culture, the English middle class. Amazingly prolific, habitually producing at least one new work every year, he treats theater as his toy, and he enjoys playing around with its conventions. Ayckbourn penned The Norman Conquests, in which the same event is seen from three different perspectives, and Intimate Exchanges, in which the action changed nightly according to slightly altered decisions by its characters. In House and Garden, his 57th and 58th plays — now at London's Royal National Theatre — he goes even further.

House and Garden depict the same characters on the same day and are performed simultaneously in the neighboring Olivier and Lyttleton theaters. One stage serves as a grand country house, the other as its garden. So, for example, a character in the house (the Lyttleton) will announce his intention to stroll outside, then walk into the wings and appear in the Olivier a few moments later. Both plays start and end at the same time, followed by a village fête in the lobby with the stalls manned by the actors.

It is an ingenious idea and a terrifyingly complex feat of theatrical engineering. Fortunately, the National found a director brave enough to tackle it — Ayckbourn himself. Any number of things could go wrong: cast members could fall and hurt themselves as they rush through backstage corridors or an audience could slow up one play with gales of laughter, ruining all hopes of synchronized finales. However, there are contingency plans, including extra dialogue and the sound of an offstage dog (named Spoof) whose barking warns the actors to hurry. Even so, on opening night one actor was reduced to ad-libbing about the garden's flora and fauna during his curtain call until his colleagues arrived, panting, from their bows next door.

Both shows revolve around the same basic plot line. Teddy Platt, who owns the residence of the titles, is having an affair with Joanna Mace, his best friend's wife. Although each play is self-contained, it would be a mistake to attend only one. There is real enjoyment in piecing together the two parts of the jigsaw. Ayckbourn insists that the order is unimportant, but he is wrong. I saw Garden at a matinee, and House in the evening. That's the wrong way around. Garden is farce, House is altogether more substantial. Seeing Garden first is like eating the dessert before diving into the main course.

Still, a most enjoyable farce it is, packed with dropped trousers and Ayckbourn wisecracks like, "You can wreck my marriage but I'll never forgive you if you ruin my lunch party." Garden concentrates on the efforts of Joanna's husband Giles (the splendidly meek Michael Siberry) to control his increasingly hysterical wife. Siberry's Giles epitomizes the English stiff upper lip, a trait Ayckbourn gently ridicules.

House is a darker affair, and a superior work. It details Teddy's quest to become a Member of Parliament — hindered by the sinister politician Gavin Ryng-Mayne — and his battles with a wife who ignores his existence. David Haig is a marvelously slimy Teddy, hilariously frustrated when he finds that his simpering charm leaves everyone cold. Jane Asher gives a star performance as the wife, Trish, whose misery and anger break the surface of her perfect-hostess veneer.

The most disturbing episode, however, occurs when the suave Ryng-Mayne, played with icy poise by Malcolm Sinclair, seduces Trish's teenage daughter. It ensures that House retains a bitter aftertaste. For in that play, Ayckbourn probes beneath the material luxuries of gentrified English society to show that there are enough Ryng-Maynes to give ample cause for discomfort. It is a thought that nags even through the gaiety of the fête.