This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
Two small, but incredibly well-acted revivals of British plays are currently making Los Angeles audiences laugh and squirm.
The first is Alan Ayckbourn's 1974 comedy, Confusions. Written just after the playwright's epic trilogy of romantic triangles, The Norman Conquests, Confusions consists of six short scenes of frustrated love.
Anyone who saw (or wanted to see) last year's pitch-perfect production of the Norman plays by The Old Vic — which won the Tony Award for best revival of a play on Broadway after an acclaimed run in London — will want to catch this revival of Confusions directed by John Pleshette.
Pleshette and the Lost Studio have made a specialty of Harold Pinter over the last decade and in this staging, the first-rate acting makes the broadly comic Ayckbourn's work seem almost Pinteresque.
The scenarios of Ayckbourn's portraits in Confusions are not particularly novel: a coincidental dinner booking, an arrant P.A. system, or people meeting in a park. They could just as easily be Monty Python sketches or somber scenes from a melodrama. Ayckbourn's skill is to find the unspoken in each of these scenes, the awkward secret that the characters don't want to acknowledge, and then tease it out for as long as he can. Ayckbourn tortures his characters for our amusement, but he renders them with such lovable human flaws that we don't want to turn away.
What Ayckbourn's plays require, in order to seem like more than just sketches, are actors with equal parts empathy and comic timing. Pleshette has gathered a strong troupe of young actors here; and the best thing about this Lost Studio revival is the way everyone in the cast — all of whom speak in convincing enough British accents — does some of their best acting when they're not speaking.
This is key, since the point of Ayckbourn's play is that people just won't shut up — even though everyone hates people who just won't shut up. (Pleshette shrewdly updates the play to include cell phones and blackberries and other modern devices of conversational torture.)
The pained, bored, desperate, and of course, confused expressions on the actor's faces in Confusions are as telling as Ayckbourn's finely tuned dialogue. Phoebe James and Brendan Hunt are particular delightful in their non-verbal acting, but the cast as a whole is compelling throughout.
The same can be said for Marilyn Fox's revival of The Browning Version currently running at Venice's Pacific Resident Theatre, which also features a strong seven-person cast. Like Confusions, Terrence Rattigan's 1948 one-act is a comedy of errors — although in the case of The Browning Version, these errors are not played for laughs, but rather as slow, inexorable tragedy.
To hear the plot of The Browning Version, or to describe its straightforward, old-fashioned style is to almost certainly underwhelm. Rattigan's work can feel like the theatrical equivalent of a nickelodeon or gramophone: well-made artifacts from a more simple time, that just don't hold up to our modern ways and expectations.
But any seeming stuffiness or mustiness in Rattigan's work is easily brushed away by fine performances. In the main role, Bruce French gives a Broadway-caliber turn as the aging professor, Andrew Cocker-Harris. French inhabits this role — you'd swear he's been teaching ancient Greek to British schoolboys for decades. Likewise, you feel the groaning of his psyche, sagging under decades of comprises: to his wife, to his colleagues, and to his own ambitions.
As the wife, Sally Smythe plays Mrs. Crocker-Harris as a British, slightly more reserved precursor to Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf's Martha. She and the supporting actors — especially William Hunt and Justin Preston — are all quite fine; but it's French's performance that lingers.
The Browning Version runs through March 28 at Pacific Resident Theatre; Confusions runs through March 6 at the Lost Studio;
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Banner image: The Browning Version: Viktor Martins