There's little new to be said about those staples of interpersonal relationships: love and hate, yearning, obsession and betrayal. Alan Ayckbourn, however, well known for his novel arrangements of two or more stories--either upstage and downstage of each other, back to back, side by side, or even happening at the same time--manages to shed new light on old subjects by coming up with new and intriguing characters, and varying the stage configuration. In this, his 1997 play, he provides a three-level house to tell overlapping tales that mine the familiar territory trod by his ever-loving, ever-lusting characters.
Just above eye level we get the clever conceit of a snail's eye view of a bed skirt and the knees-to-feet activity of the renters of the upstairs flat: Nikki (Caitlyn Shannon) and her new fiance, Hamish (James Tupper), who are waiting for their new home to be finished. At stage level, Barbara (Stephanie Nash), a one-time schoolgirl crush of Nikki's, lives in singular--by choice, she insists--pristine isolation, directly over the basement flat rented by Gilbert (Greg Mullavey), a postman with artistic delusions, who is occasionally glimpsed supine on a scaffolding painting his rather naked obsessions on the ceiling. The self-contained Barbara--a spiky, rather prissy spinster-in-the-making, despite herself and despite her general nastiness to everyone in her vicinity--is the cynosure of her housemates' dreams and desires.
The routine emotional setup, made physically intriguing by the unusual configuration, never for a moment suggests the possibility of an unpredictable outcome, which begs the question of a feasible dramatic arc leading to an unanticipated climax. At least Ayckbourn broaches subjects as challenging as loneliness, fear of commitment, betrayal and anomie, but only in a peripheral manner because comedy is what we're led to expect here, although laughter is slow in coming because the play doesn't quite make up its mind what it's going to be when it grows up: comedy, realism, farce, or heartbreak. The result feels like a whole lot of manipulation going on albeit with some chinks of honest possibility that are never realized.
Nash is likeably bitchy, if you're not at the wrong end of her biting tongue, and she looks great, with or without clothes; Mullavey is always solid, despite the rather embarrassing character he plays; Tupper ably handles his less well-defined role; but Shannon, who's supposedly only five years younger than her sometime high school Head Girl, gets quickly irritating, sounding increasingly like an overgrown 10-year-old.
Director Barry Philips makes superb use of Don Llewellyn's great set which, with Kathi O'Donohue's lighting, is the complex star of the production.