‘Well,’ ‘Absurd’ add acidity to holiday treacle
Author: - December 5, 2009 - Updated: December 5, 2009
“Well,” by Lisa Kron, directed by Christy Montour-Larson, and “Absurd Person Singular,” by Alan Ayckbourn, directed by Sabin Epstein. Both playing through
Dec. 19 at the DCPA.
The Denver Center Theater Company is offering a pair of alternatives to its annual mounting of the Dickens chestnut, “A Christmas Carol.” Lisa Kron’s “Well” is the more intriguing fare, and, at 90 minutes without an intermission, will have you back on the street in plenty of time for a nightcap. Kron has been a performance artist, and it shows in her script, which is part sporadic monologue and part sketch comedy.
The stage in the Ricketson Theater is neatly divided — half the cluttered living room inhabited by Kron’s mother, Ann, played with gusto by Kathleen Brady, and half a sterile space where the character/author Lisa Kron (Kate Levy) stages skits about her personal hospital experiences.
Lisa’s initial monologue is dominated by the repeated admonition that the performance you are about to watch is intended as a dramatic exploration of the issues surrounding health and wellness. It is pointed out that this work is not intended to be an analysis of the author’s relationship with her chronically ill mother. She is there, on stage, simply to clarify the issues. But, of course, Mom corrects Lisa’s recollections and interacts with the hospital sketch characters, who are soon turning to Mom for direction rather than to Lisa.
Kron’s script doesn’t mount an argument about health care costs or quality, and it sheds no light on the seemingly interminable debate in Washington. Rather, it probes the mystery of who gets sick, and why. Who gets well, and why? Lisa’s mother, Ann, apparently has been a community leader who helped to heal the fractures in a mixed-race neighborhood, but she has not been able to overcome a lifetime of “allergy” related illness.
Much like the Coen brothers’ current movie, “A Serious Man,” Kron reaches the conclusion that perhaps some things simply cannot be explained — that the search for answers may be nothing more than a fool’s errand. But before arriving at this unsatisfying resolution, she leaves us with a lot to think about as we are enjoying that nightcap. “Well” is cutting-edge theater, challengingly mounted by director Christy Montour-Larson, and it’s gratifying to see the DCPA’s risk running just a little ahead of the dramatic curve.
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Alan Ayckbourn may be the most prolific living writer for the English theater. He grinds out one or two new scripts every year, bringing his eye to bear on the cultural tensions that pull on the middle class. Of course, his venue is Britain, where class-consciousness is more than an academic concept (think Karl Marx).
“Absurd Person Singular” examines the shifting relationships among three couples over three successive Christmas celebrations during the early 1970s. Don’t be fooled. This no sentimental Christmas story. It could just as easily have followed the characters over the course of three Easters.
Each of Ayckbourn’s three acts is staged in the kitchen of one of the three couples that we get to know. The Hopcrofts are lower middle class and aspiring. The Jacksons, professional and arrogant. The Brewster-Wrights are upper middle class and snooty. Scenic designer Bill Forrester unveils each set much like a Chinese puzzle box. It’s worth it to remain in the theater during intermission simply to watch his set transformations.
Although there are plenty of laughs and lots of slapstick humor, this is a talky play. You have to pay close attention to catch all the fear, loathing and flickering resentments among these “friends.” Director Sabin Epstein has retained a very British feel in his production, which means that most of the characters remain largely unsympathetic. John Hutton is particularly prissy as the banker, while David Ivers is a cad like no other. It is gratifying to see the blue-collar Hopcrofts, who desperately need a bank loan in Act One, achieve business success that brings their “betters” crawling for favors in Act Three.
“Absurd Person Singular” relies on off-stage action to advance the on-stage story. It’s a clever trick, including a fourth couple, the Potters, that we never see but only hear about. You have the feeling that Ayckbourn was showing off when he wrote the script. There is a, “…see what I can get away with” quality to the story, which diminishes understanding more than enhancing it. Nonetheless, I doubt you will ever see a better production of this period piece.
Miller Hudson, a former Denver Democratic state representative, is currently a legislative and government consultant. He has been a frequent reviewer of the performing arts for The Colorado Statesman over the years.