RED BANK: PERSONS ACTING ABSURDLY

Absurd Person (horiz)Broadway veterans Michael Cumpsty, Brooks Ashmanskas and Melissa Van Der Schyff help bring Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s “wildly British” comedy of ill manners ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR to the stage of Two River Theater, beginning in previews this weekend.

The dried-out, needle-shedding Christmas trees of the greater Red Bank (ever)Green may be headed out to the curb as we post this, but for the next several weeks the holiday gatherings are in full force on the stage of Two River Theater — not just “this Christmas,” but “last Christmas” and even “next Christmas,” during the three acts of the ensemble comedy Absurd Person Singular.

If that whirlwind tour through Yuletides both yesteryear and Yet to Come sounds straight out of the Scroogely scrivenings of Charles Dickens, rest assured that the 1972 Singular springs from the electric typewriter of a more modern British observer of class and social mores: the prolific playwright, screenwriter and director Sir Alan Ayckbourn. The Tony- and Olivier Award winning theatrical titan (whose recent play My Wonderful Day was produced on the Two River stage a couple of seasons back) may not have made as big a splash on this side of the pond as in his native UK — but in the words of Brooks Ashmanskas, this “wildly British,” darkly comic 1970s take on all-consuming ambition, strained relationships and the effect of New Money on the Old Order “seems very 1980s from an American point of view…it should be very clear to all of us who’ve lived through the last 30 years.”

A Tony nominee for his work in Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, Ashmanskas is one of several Broadway veterans sinking their teeth into the play’s sextet of naive, neurotic, alcoholic, ass-kissing, suicidal, snarky, snobbish and altogether comical characters — as Absurd Person Singular begins a round of previews this Saturday, in advance of a limited engagement that runs through February 1.

One of the most often produced of Ayckbourn’s 70-plus full-length works for the stage, the play looks at a transitional period in British society through the prism of three married sets of friends — with each act set inside the home of a different couple on one of three consecutive Decembers. Featured as Ronald, the reserved bank officer, is a Tony nominee and Obie winner who’s become something of an unofficial artist-in-residence on the Two River stage in recent seasons: Michael Cumpsty, who directed Annette O’Toole in 2014’s Third. He’s paired with Ocean County native Mary Birdsong (a recurring player on the Cinemax series The Knick) as his snooty (and soused) spouse Marion, in a study of two people whose upper-class affectations can’t protect them from the fickle finger of fate.

Then there’s Sidney, the aspiring developer and shameless suck-up whose awkward brand of networking morphs into something darker as the characters’ fortunes see-saw through the seasons. He’s portrayed by Ashmanskas as a guy who’s “all on the surface in the first act…he has it all set up; all he needs all he needs to put the plan in motion is a loan from the bank.” Taking the tack that the play’s most catalytic character is “just trying to provide for himself and his wife,” an unpretentious average-jane named Jane (Melissa Van Der Schyff), the acclaimed comedy specialist observes that “I have to look at it from the point of view that he’s doing everything for a reason.”

Scott Drummond and Liz Winans complete the cast as Geoffrey and Eva — an arrogant architect and his pill-addicted wife, and a pair who weather the ravages of marital discord and devastating reversals in some altogether interesting ways. They’re all working under the young director Jessica Stone, an accomplished actress making the scene in Red Bank with her debut project for Two River Theater Company.

“It’s a great comedy…even a cautionary tale if you look at it,” says Ashmanskas, who “jumped at the chance” to reunite with director and former castmate Stone. “Another way of looking at it is, I’ve been watching all these super-luxurious new buildings go up in Manhattan…well, Sidney is those new buildings.”

Absurd Person Singular goes up in the first of five previews on Saturday, January 10; opening on Friday, January 16 and running through February 1 with a mix of matinee and evening performances. Tickets ($20 – $42 adults) and details on special performances can be obtained by taking it here.

Before Opening Night, TRTC invites the public to a special “Paint and Play” session on Tuesday, January 13, during which the company partners with Wine and Design Milltown for a behind-the-scenes in which Lea Anello of Two River’s scene shop explains her process of creating the play’s intricate set. Attendees are invited to grab a brush (no painting experience necessary) and “be guided through the process of creating your very own masterpiece.” Scheduled from 6:30 to 8:30 pm, the BYOB event is $35 per person (includes painting supplies, light fare, backstage tour and talk), with reservations here and payment required prior to event .