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RED BANK: NEW SPIN ON THE ‘ABSURD’

absurd_person_singular_press_1-500x345-1277769Mary Birdsong, Brooks Ashmanskas and Melissa Van Der Schyff are in the kitchen with Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR, now on stage at Two River Theater. (Photo by T.C. Erickson)

By TOM CHESEK

“You’re no longer a man I care about enough to throw myself out a window for,” says long-suffering wife Eva (Liz Wisan) to Geoffrey (Scott Drummond), her philandering, condescending and probably incompetent architect husband — and the fact that the line gets a laugh tells you all you need to know about the level of sympathy elicited by these “two bitter lemons” and their faux friends in Absurd Person Singular, the ensemble comedy now on stage at Two River Theater.

Written and set in early 1970s Britain, the play by the prolific Sir Alan Ayckbourn opened this past weekend, and continues its limited-engagement Red Bank run with a mix of matinee and evening performances Wednesday through Sunday.

Directed by Jessica Stone, the production places a cast of Broadway/ Off Broadway pros — highlighted by Tony nominees Brooks Ashmanskas and Michael Cumpsty — into a scenario of slapstick, snark, sadistic head games and suicidal impulses that could only be called “wickedly British.”

The famous revolving stage of Two River’s Rechnitz Theater gets a workout (to the tune of Blood Sweat and Tears’ “Spinning Wheel”) as the action lazy-susans its way through three successive Christmas holidays, each hosted in one of the homes of our three barely friendly couples.

In addition to the unctuous Geoffrey and pill-popping Eva, the sextet features emotionally disconnected banker Ronald (Cumpsty, the sole Brit-born member of the ensemble); his sloshed and snooty spouse, Marion (Mary Birdsong of the Cinemax series The Knick); and Sidney (Ashmanskas), the social-climbing catalyst who brings these unpleasant upper-middle class types together. Sidney’s desperate and awkward attempts to impress his “very useful” betters shows a darker edge as the fortunes of the principals see-saw in some unexpected ways. Melissa Van Der Schyff plays Sidney’s sweet-natured but addled wife, Jane, as the play’s sole innocent.

Ayckbourn (whose My Wonderful Day was seen a couple of seasons back at Two River) has some pithy points to score regarding marriage, middle class morals, and the ways in which “new money” can set the old system on its ear. That said, the show favors slapstick over the more sophisticated satire — with characters variously getting drenched, sloshed, shocked, locked out of the house, and generally humiliated by their own feeble attempts to seem helpful. Tthis being the pre-Thatcher era, the women are forced to define themselves through the prism of their increasingly ineffectual husbands. The actors play it broad for the most part; mugging their way through the choreographed chaos — and milking even those serial attempts at suicide for all their comic worth — as their well-ordered world spins out of control.

Presented in three acts with intermissions, Absurd Person Singular continues through February 1, with tickets ($20 – $42 adults), showtimes and details on special performances available here.

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