How the Other Half Loves: Disastrous Dinner Parties and All

The set-up: Bob Phillips' shoe is in the wastebasket. Taken for granted, his wife Theresa is slovenly and edgy. Their baby is covered with prunes and honey. Frank Foster, Bob's boss, has settled into a predictable married routine. Frank's neglected wife Fiona finds excitement by having an affair with Bob.

To deflect suspicion Fiona creates a tale that draws in Frank and Bob's dull co-worker William Detweiler and his mousy wife Mary. These three couples collide in wonderfully theatrical ways in How the Other Half Loves because their farce is played out on one set that depicts the Phillips and Foster homes. Divided right down the middle, we watch simultaneous action in each place. In one of the great scenes in all English comedy, two disastrous dinner parties - the Detweilers at the Phillips, and the Detweilers at the Fosters - take place on two different nights but occur at the same time.

The execution: This masterful playing with stage time and space is the hallmark of prolific English playwright Alan Ayckbourn, whose successful comedies (78 so far) include Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Bedroom Farce, Communicating Doors, House & Garden, and My Wonderful Day. Loves is early in his career (1969) but contains all his patented marital themes and dazzling maze-like structure. The farce spins with glee, is very funny, yet throws off dark sparks. Phenomenally successful in its London premiere run, the comedy moved across the Atlantic in 1971, giving Broadway its first tantalizing glimpse of Ayckbourn's dizzying sleight-of-hand stagecraft. It ran only three months, even with Phil Silvers as clueless Frank and Sandy Dennis as Theresa, but his next NY show, Absurd Person Singular - three unhappy couples, three Christmases - was an unqualified smash.

Theatre Southwest's sterling production sets off its own sparks, thanks to a splendid ensemble cast whirling under David Hymel's spirited direction. The characters aren't deep or drawn with any sort of insight - this is classic farce after all, and unbridled, preposterous situations rule - but the cast takes these one-note caricatures and gives them sufficient, comic life. The comedy is greatly enhanced, but so is the undercurrent of sadness and inevitability of fraying married life.

Scott Holmes, as clueless Frank - "there isn't much that escapes me," he says as evidence of Fiona's infidelity sails completely over his head - sputters with pompous import. Holmes turns obtuseness into fine art. Crys Hymel, as philandering Fiona, has a lovely way of arching her eyebrows just so, as if she can twist the truth with a glance whenever Frank's prying questions hit too close.

Brian Heaton, as Fiona's boy toy, plays him both dangerous and foolish. Spoiled and conceited, he tries to rule his little kingdom with macho bluster and charm and almost gets away with it. He butts heads with a matchless Autumn Woods, as Theresa, who's unfulfilled and swamped by the lack of domestic bliss. She shows us the stirrings beneath Theresa's strident outbursts, guessing almost from the start that Bob is up to no good. Like Stanley and Stella, their fights are forgiven, if not forgotten. in the bedroom.

As the boring Detweilers, Scott McWhirter and Michelle Drake Wilson bring a spry touch to their comic timing. The double dinner party is the highpoint, as they pingpong between the out-of-control tag team of the Phillips and the infuriatingly polite Fosters. Controlling and inflexible, William gets his deserved comeuppance when doormat Mary finally has had enough of his bullying. A little slap to his hand instantly deflates him. It's a lovely moment, and we laugh at how easy, and how satisfying, it is for Mary to finally take the reins.

The verdict: All three couples are a bit different by the end of the play. Whether it's for the best is something Ayckbourn teasingly leaves up in the air. Ayckbourn is master enough to know when to tickle and when to prick. Theatre Southwest's fine production knows how to do both also.

Alan Ayckbourn's time and space-bending farce sparkles through January 18 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. Purchase tickets online at theatresouthwest.org or call 713-661-9505. $15-$17.

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