Michael Connolly as Hugh and Michael Murray as Richard in Joking Apart.
BOTTOM LINE: An intelligent British comedy about friends you love to hate, and hate to love; it succeeds on all fronts.
Some people seem to have all the luck. At least that's the case with the couple at the center of Alan Ayckbourn's 1979 comedy Joking Apart. Richard and Anthea are simply perfect in every way. They have a big backyard, perfect kids, slim figures, and float through life with impeccable ease, but despite their best intentions, they can't help acting as a counterpoint to everyone else's imperfections. Their friends slowly discover their growing annoyance is in fact bone-deep hatred. Richard and Anthea's actions have a profound effect on others, so much so that within the first fifteen minutes of meeting their new neighbors they successfully manage to destroy their property, take away their privacy, and put a lasting dent in their marriage, all without the slightest idea of what they were doing.
The whole thing takes place over twelve years as the neighborhood couples keep reuniting for holiday get-togethers, although in a small world with few friends, no one can quite explain why they keep coming back. Everyone grows older and fatter and more desperate, with of course the exception of one sublime family with their full-size tennis court. Small pet peeves gradually turn into deep seeded resentment and bouts of hilarious depression. You can't help but feel guilty for laughing at these faulted souls repeatedly banging their heads against the wall. Shrouded in a blanket of polite cheer, the pot begins to simmer and you can almost hear the oncoming explosion silently building.
The play succeeds on all fronts. The acting is genuinely hilarious and subtle with wonderful performances from all cast members. Special acknowledgment goes to James Liebman as Sven, the Finnish know-it-all, for his ability to deliver unexpected interpretations to all of his interactions. Ayckbourn states that he wanted to write a play that is about serious issues yet keeps the audience laughing; under Peter Jensen's precise direction he achieves just that.
And let's not forget the designers who have achieved something just short of magic. From a fireworks display, to bonfires, and a brilliant yet simply staged series of tennis matches, to a beautiful shabby set that ages right before your eyes as the decade passes by, fashion fads and all, the world of the polite English countryside society comes to life. Politeness trumps personal expression, thoughts fester and characters degrade, despite their snazzy new outfits and easy girlfriends. The play is worth seeing for the costumes alone, which take the audience down the nostalgic fab fashion road of the seventies and eighties. It all seems so effortless, as two hours fly past in no time. This one is very highly recommended to anyone interested in an intelligent retro comedy.
(Joking Apart plays through June 27, 2010 at the T. Schreiber Studio in The Gloria Maddox Theater at 151 West 26th Street. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at tschreiber.org or by calling 212.352.3101.)