By Cory Bilicko
Managing Copy Editor
How the Other Half Loves is one of the first of the 72 plays that Alan Ayckbourn has penned, and it was Broadway’s first taste of the English playwright whose specialty is comedic chronicling of lives come undone. Exploiting the farcical comedy and set in the late ’60s, it confronts serious issues with an undercurrent of biting reality to satirize modern British society. The Long Beach Playhouse has assembled a director and sextet of actors who deftly handle the challenging material with nearly precise timing.
In a crafty bit of staging and scenery, two pairs of spouses in their own living rooms, the Fosters and the Phillipses, can be seen by the audience but not by each other, but the couples keep moving into one another’s spaces. The set is built as an amalgam of the couples’ homes; it’s as if the two dissimilar interiors had been broken down then reconstructed together as a sort of Frankensteinian creation, complete with deconstructed-then-reassembled sofa and table. We see the high-end, traditional decorum of the Fosters intermingled with the earthy, Africa-inpsired look of the younger couple’s apartment.
We also learn early on, through secretive telephone calls and wrong spouses answering the phone, that Bob Phillips and Fiona Foster are having an affair. Confusion rather than suspicion ensues, but it’s not until a third couple, the unsuspecting Detweilers, show up for dinner at the Fosters’, then the Phillipses’, that the real farcical elements fall into place and the secret liaison is at risk of being revealed.
It is this show-stealing scene at the end of the first act that makes the late-coming Detweilers the focal point and source of delight as we watch the innocent, nervous pair engage in two dinners simultaneously, happily entertained in one, and unsettled and bewildered in the other.
Blasé married couples who cheat, implicit acts of aggression, and overlapping set pieces would become Ayckbourn’s signature elements in his adult-oriented plays (he also writes for children), and here the manipulation of time and space are used in lieu of the conventional entering/exiting and slamming of doors that we’ve come to expect from a farce. With Martha Duncan’s direction, it’s all well paced and executed by this cast, who, unfortunately, are working with a script that takes a little longer than necessary to set up the situation.
As the Fosters, Andrea Stradling and Jack Winnick fit snugly into their roles with just the right mix of sophistication and nonchalance. Their complements, the Phillipses, are brought to life by Tracy Ahern and Cort Huckabone. Ahern is the perfect feminist match against the intoxicated brutishness that Huckabone brings home later in the story. As the couple that’s exploited by the others and, likewise, has the strongest character arc, Bob Fetes and Allison Eberly manage to pull off geekiness that is somehow more charming and amusing than cliché or nettlesome. Eberly undergoes a transformation that, although severe, is, dare I say, sexy. Perhaps it’s in contrast to her husband’s voice, a noise that is at once squeaky and musical. When he reaches the point of potential violence against his wife, it walks the fine line of humor and tragedy, a fitting dichotomy for Ayckbourn’s insightful point-of-view of marriage and infidelity.
How the Other Half Loves will continue at the Long Beach Playhouse through Oct. 4, Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Prices are: $22 for Friday and Saturday evenings or Sunday matinees; $20 for seniors 60 and older; and $12 for students with valid ID. For more information about this or other Playhouse productions, visit www.lbph.com or call (562) 494-1014.