Update: May 14, 2019: The run for Relatively Speaking has been extended through June 2. Added performances at at 7:30 p.m. June 1 and 3 p.m. June 2, 2019.
How much do you enjoy something like Abbott and Costello's famous "Who's On First" bit? The answer to the question may be a good litmus test for how much you'll enjoy Alan Ayckbourn's Relatively Speaking, now playing at Main Street Theater.
Relatively Speaking opens with Greg and Ginny, the unromanticized picture of young love. Ginny is secretive and Greg is suspicious, with good reason. Candy and flowers keep showing up at the door, an unknown caller keeps ringing and hanging up when Greg answers the phone, and a mysterious pair of men’s tartan slippers are found under the bed. On top on that, Ginny is off to see her parents and no, Greg is not invited.
Undeterred, Greg follows her, beating a train-delayed Ginny to the home of her parents, Philip and Sheila. Except – surprise! – they’re not her parents at all. Philip is actually her former boss and lover, and Sheila his wife. Greg, believing Philip and Sheila are Ginny’s parents, upends the couple’s quiet afternoon in the country, as Sheila thinks Greg is there to talk business with her husband, but Philip comes to believe Greg is Sheila’s “other man” asking for her hand in marriage. When Ginny arrives, well, all bets are off as she finds that not only is Sheila home (and not in church where Ginny expected her to be), but her own boyfriend is there in a frilly apron about to set the table for lunch. And oh, what a lunch it will be.
Noël Coward famously sent Ayckbourn a telegram of congratulations upon seeing Relatively Speaking, and though Coward’s kind words, “beautifully constructed” and “very funny,” aren’t exactly the most effusive or sexy, gosh darn if they’re not right. Relatively Speaking is well-paced, well-balanced and funnier by the second, with Greg’s arrival at “The Willows,” Philip and Sheila’s home, and his first meeting with Philip (if you can even call it that) pushing the play from chuckle-worthy to guffaw-inducing. And if you see shades of Shakespeare, Wilde, Goldsmith, or even Three’s Company (itself adapted from a British sitcom) – well, you’re not wrong either. The carefully written proper-noun-less conversations, full of “you and me,” “me and her,” “her and you, ” and “us,” keep the farce going well-past the expected snap of credulity. And a lot of credit for keeping Ayckbourn’s script going goes to director Rebecca Greene Udden.
Udden leads a strong cast of four with a sure hand, all the while ensuring a very talky play stays in motion and never loses steam. The cast make good use of the space, and while Relatively Speaking is far from slapstick, everyone’s face gets a good workout with all the “reaction shots” throughout.
Specifically, Tom Prior’s Philip goes through a hilarious three stages of something, going from a thousand-yard stare to hysterical laughter to untethered tantrum in the span of minutes. Blake Weir is a boyish Greg, exhibiting a good amount of ‘60s neuroticism while occasionally puffing out his chest and trying out assertiveness like a new pair of pants. Lindsay Ehrhardt is skillful as cool, if bad, liar Ginny, but eventually even her facade breaks and she begins to shake at a key moment. And then there’s Kara Greenberg’s Sheila, the most sympathetic character of the bunch.
With Ehrhardt’s Ginny deceptive and untrustworthy, and Prior’s Philip an opportunistic schemer unbothered by the idea of blackmailing a woman into a relationship with him (and Weir’s Greg just a touch too naive for his own good), Sheila is the heart of the production, and Greenberg plays her as self-possessed until she can’t be, tapping into the emotion that underlies the entire play.
Liz Freese’s dual sets, with properties design by Rodney Walsworth, perfectly capture two opposing lifestyles. One is Ginny’s messy London flat, which well-represents her messy life, with Philip at one point remarking, “I would hate to lead a life as complicated as yours.” Much of the ‘60s setting is established in Ginny’s apartment, with walls of avocado green and strawberry pink, posters of Alfie and Georgy Girl, and the floral patterns that abound, along with Paige Willson’s costumes, which include 1960s-era items such as Ginny’s mod-ish white trench coat and beret, or Greg’s garishly striped trousers.
Freese’s second set is that of “The Willows,” Philip and Sheila’s empty seeming, countryside cottage. Shawn W. St. John’s sound designs are effective throughout, like the hum of Ginny’s running shower or the squeak of the gate that announces first Greg and then Ginny’s arrival at “The Willows.” But it’s the birds that chirp in the garden, as well as John Smetak’s warm, bright light, that most evoke a lovely day in the country.
More than 50 years later, since premiering in 1965, and then taking the West End by storm in ‘67, Relatively Speaking serves as an interesting period piece, and a biting take on middle-class English relationships in a shifting 1960s landscape. But, more importantly, it’s still funny as all get out. And unless you’re one of the one percent who angrily yells, “Who! Who is the name of the man on first base,” then Relatively Speaking is for you.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540 Times. Through
May 26 June 2. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36 to $48.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.