In "Farce," his 1982 history of the art form, Albert Bermel extols the work of Alan Ayckbourn, including his 1972 "Absurd Person Singular," now in an occasionally rollicking yet unsatisfying revival at the Biltmore. Bermel praises the playwright's "geometrical manipulation of scenes" and his "cool and sometimes callous depiction of his characters, all of whom he keeps at a satirical remove" -- hallmarks of his idiosyncratic style. No, he's not your average farceur, which has ostensibly made it hard for director John Tillinger and the game, misdirected cast to rediscover why the play was a Broadway hit 30 years ago.
All three acts have the potential for serious theatrical tomfoolery. Each occurs on Christmas Day -- last year, this year, next year -- and each examines three couples: jejune Jane (Clea Lewis) and scatterbrained Sidney (Alan Ruck), highborn Ronald (Paxton Whitehead) and equally highborn Marion (Deborah Rush), and frumpy Eva (Mireille Enos) and libidinous Geoffrey (Sam Robards).
If the play's plotline is a threadbare affair -- Sidney and Geoffrey are architects in a simmering rivalry; banker Ronald is keen to keep their counsel -- the real action comes from watching their mundane interplays: chatter about washing machines, repairing kitchen lamps, unclogging drains, imbibing to the season. The production nears the deliriousness of classical farce most when the women, all long-suffering, get into the act: Jane's hapless desire to get the party right, Eva's hopeless attempts to fall out of a window, Marion's helpless drinking. Bermel links Ayckbourn's plays to the "tradition of marital discontent and infidelity" found in the French farces of Georges Feydeau a century ago; he's right.
But Tillinger still hasn't figured out how to sustain the play's hovering cloud of absurdity when door slamming and presaged pratfalls aren't going on. A good example is most of Act III, with its lugubrious Chekhovian pace.
Maybe because Ayckbourn does indeed write his farcelike plays from a cool remove, maybe because Tillinger appears to be bedeviled by the writer's approach, the actors are stylistically unmoored. Lewis has a little-girl voice that guarantees laughter and she has embroidered it with a sputtering giggle. Fully unleashed, she reaches the consistent, fevered pitch of great farcical acting. Unfortunately for her, Ruck never fully transitions from mildly befuddled husband to ambitious architect.
Meanwhile, Whitehead, a New York theatre fixture for more than 40 years, should patent his understated take on bluebloods: He proves that farce needn't be over the top, even if your character is electrocuted. He has a mirthful counterpart in Rush, with whom he appeared in the original Broadway "Noises Off," but only in Act III -- she is otherwise a bit somnambulistic, tossing off condescending remarks and keeping her energy low. Enos and Robards are appealing to look at, but the naturalistic interpretation adopted by Robards is spot-off. Enos, whose character manages to drive Act II without uttering a sound, is still finding her way.