The best part of Alan Ayckbourn's House and Garden is its novelty. The two plays run at the same time on two stages, and their syncopated stories are performed by the same cast, which requires a bit of racing up and down stairs by the boisterous actors at the Alley Theatre. All the action takes place over the course of one day on the utterly zany Platt estate. While one group of characters is busy hashing out some problem in the garden (sprouting up from the Neuhaus Arena stage in the Alley's basement), another pair is duking it out in the elegantly appointed sitting room of the Platt house on the large stage upstairs. Both plays are supposed to stand alone as finished stories, but you can't help feeling you've missed out on some essential snag in the tale when you see only one.
The conceit behind the farcical scripts was inspired by a moment in a restaurant, when Ayckbourn thought about how his waiter, who played such a small role in Ayckbourn's life, had the starring role in his own. House and Garden takes off from this observation; the seemingly small characters in one play are the heartbeat of the other. Perhaps the smartest trick of all is that Ayckbourn is always hinting at the conflict you're not seeing, so you come out of one dying to see the other. Neither feels quite finished by itself.
The scripts themselves may not be earthshaking, but they're funny and sometimes poignant. The offbeat characters are made especially charming in the hands of the Alley's capable company. Teddy Platt (James Black) is an old-money ne'er-do-well coming up on his 50th birthday with nothing more to show for his years on earth than the fact that he has "more or less kept things going" in the family business. His philandering has finally taken its toll on his marriage; when his lovely wife, Trish (Elizabeth Heflin), comes into the room, she pretends he's not even there. Her behavior is especially disquieting right now, as Teddy is about to be visited by the very pompous Gavin Ryng-Mayne (Paul Hope), who's likely to offer Teddy a position in politics, something that would give his life meaning.
House and Garden
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue
Through May 12, 713-228-8421. $20-$45
Across the garden live the Maces, Giles (Todd Waite) and Joanna (Kimberly King), who are also in the throws of midlife marital trouble. King, whose comic timing is unmatched in this production, is a hysterical tangle of neuroses. Ready to abandon her marriage for a fling with Teddy, she hides in the bushes, hungry for love and growing madder by the minute. Her long-suffering husband "absolutely adores" her despite her bizarre behavior.
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The Platts' and the Maces' conflicts weave throughout both productions, though House centers on Teddy and Trish, while Garden focuses on Joanna and Giles. Other troubled couples waltz through the story. The Platts' teenage daughter, Sally (Jennifer Cherry), spends most of her day avoiding the Maces' son, Jake (Ty Mayberry), who chases after the pretty, arrogant girl with dogged persistence. Both Cherry and Mayberry fill their characters with an adolescent doltishness that makes them painfully appealing in spite of their willful wrongheadedness.
Barry (James Belcher) and Lindy Love (Anne Quackenbush), two local shopkeepers who have been hired by the Platts to set up an afternoon party in the garden, are suffering from still more domestic gloom and doom. The two may wear matching nylon warm-up suits, but that's as far as their union takes them. Barry orders his mousy wife about, criticizing her every move; he even compares Lindy to his faithful old van and tells her that he's "very fond of her." Quackenbush is heartbreakingly funny as the bespectacled woman who wears her dishwater-blond hair flattened back with barrettes and longs for something more in her dull life. Belcher makes a perfectly dreadful husband who's content to turn his wife into a pack animal.
Of all the troubled couples, Izzie Truce (Bettye Fitzpatrick) and Warn Coucher (Charles Krohn) make the strangest. The aging housekeeper has only recently hooked up with Warn the gardener. Her sexy daughter, Pearl (Shelley Calene-Black), also figures into the equation of this relationship (you'll have to see it to know how), making the trio odd indeed. Calene-Black shines as the well-meaning, loose-living Pearl, who gleefully vacuums with her cleavage showing and flirts without maliciousness or discretion.
As appealing as this cast is, the sleight of hand that ties these tales together is the real star of these productions. Stephen Rayne's careful timing and adroit direction make the complex geometry of these two plays look as easy as a garden party. Played out against the backdrop of Linda Buchanan's elegant sets and Chris Parry's surprisingly effective lighting, House and Garden end up telling us two surprisingly simple truths about love: There's a time to let go, and a time to hang on.