Old Harold Pinter, New Alan Ayckbourn

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Among the stranger
aspects of watching a beloved art form closely over many years is that both
mediocrity and excellence sometimes take you completely by surprise. Two decades
ago, for instance, I was stunned to discover that Harold Pinter, an author capable
of greatness, could also produce a "lite" boulevard version of his
own esthetic called, too pertinently, Betrayal. Now I’m similarly
stunned to find that an author I’d long thought of as a mannered, British,
comic carpenter, Alan Ayckbourn, has written a play as interesting and suitable
to American taste as the farces of Preston Sturges, Kaufman and Hart, and Charles

I confess I
don’t know all of Ayckbourn’s 50-odd dramas, but I do know the most
famous and celebrated ones (including Absurd Person Singular and the
trilogy The Norman Conquests). Comic Potential is better than
any of them. It also contains the most astonishing performance by an actor currently
on view in New York.

The action
is set in the future, when television has become even dumber than it is today
and actors have been replaced wherever possible by robots called actoids. The
masses, it seems, either don’t notice the difference or don’t care,
requiring only programming technicians who know how to "put in the story
lines and tweak the emotions" (as a jaded director puts it). A young wannabe
comedy writer named Adam, whose rich uncle owns a tv studio, discovers that
a pretty blonde actoid there named JCF 31333 (Jacie Triplethree for short) is
different from the others–she shows creative initiative and something like
an original sense of humor–and he sets his mind on writing a special for
her. Writer and actoid soon fall in love, run away together, become tabloid
news, face dire obstacles to their love and art, and ultimately triumph after
delightfully absurd twists that shed surprising light on the nature of comedy
and originality.

I’ll come
back to the modest depths in the play. None of it would come off nearly so brightly
or intelligently without the actress Janie Dee, who, in this Manhattan Theater
Club production directed by John Tillinger, is reprising the role of Jacie she
originated in England. Dee is glitteringly precise and irresistibly endearing,
making a performance of enormous technical difficulty seem easy and natural.
She finds grace in mechanical body movements, melody and resonance in a restricted
vocal range, and the sweet humor of her character benefits crucially from the
support of Alexander Chaplin as Adam. Chaplin’s confident, Hugh-Grant-like
insouciance provides just the right charmingly worldly platform Dee needs to
make Jacie’s sincerity seem like poise rather than simple naivete. It’s
because her character is devoid of irony that it can come off as an object of
desire, a virtuosic clown and a child learning to be a human being from scratch,
all at once.

Ayckbourn has
wandered into trendy territory here, and he orients himself remarkably well.
His theme is anxiety at the interface of man and machine: an exceptional robot
wants to be human and rise above the boredom and meaninglessness of robotic
life, and this challenges the humans around her to live up to their purported
meaningfulness. Decades ago, the theater handled this theme routinely (in expressionistic
works such as Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine and Karel Capek’s
R.U.R.), but in our era it’s been almost entirely ceded to film
(think of Blade Runner and Bicentennial Man)–no doubt largely
because theater people assume that sci-fi effects onstage can’t compete
with those in film. Ayckbourn’s inspiration was to ignore the problem of
effects entirely (apart from acting). He treats his robot–who is, after
all, played by a human being–as a completely competent and qualified player
in a romantic comedy, and makes her "normalcy" in that context the
occasion for discerning thought on the essence of the comic.

Comedy, in
the play’s world, is a dying art. Adam, however, is a comic film buff who
first comes to the tv studio to meet one of his idols, Chandler Tate, a brilliant
old director who was long ago farmed out to make daytime soaps with actoids
after the studio decided his art was too expensive. Chandler’s alcoholic
corrosiveness is nicely captured by the actor Peter Michael Goetz. He is at
first wary of Adam, but the kid’s cheekiness melts through his defensive
cynicism and inertia, and he agrees to teach the youngsters a few basics of
the form: that comedy’s fundamentals are surprise and anger, for instance,
and that a comedian’s worst choice is always "the middle ground."

Ayckbourn thus
spells out a set of standards and definitions against which any comic play,
including this one, is to be measured, and then proceeds to demonstrate their
value without ever seeming to serve any masters other than laughter and his
situation’s comic truth. We hear, for instance, that surprise is never
a question of inventing the absolutely new (always an absurd concept in art)
but rather of finding variations on the old that the audience doesn’t expect.
Practically everything Jacie says and does is then a live demonstration of this–from
mouthing bromides when stuck for an answer to producing schmaltzy music (from
within her body) in emotionally fraught situations to throwing custard pies–all
her choices being hilarious variations on tired conventions. Even her romantic
appeal as an ingenue depends, flatteringly, on models from the past, since her
flawless memory of the behavior of the many other ingenues she has played and
seen is what enables her to judge what is surprising.

Is artistic
creativity, then, nothing more than a technical capacity that can be easily
taught to any advanced form of artificial intelligence? That question is here
to stay for the foreseeable future, and the wounded human pride behind it recalls
other ego-blows that have proven dangerous in the past. Think of the Inquisition’s
prosecution of Galileo, the Scopes monkey trial and the 1998 protests outside
the Manhattan Theater Club after Terrence McNally suggested in Corpus Christi
that Jesus might have been gay. On leaving Comic Potential, it occurred
to me that someone really ought to call the Christian League and let them know
that it includes a character named Adam who wants to mate with a non-human named
J.C. (!) and reads the Bible’s creation story to her in bed as a sort of
ersatz foreplay. The possible outrage wouldn’t teach us anything, but it’d
be a funny variation on an old theme that might nudge this delicious production
toward a longer run on or off Broadway.

Manhattan Theater
Club, 131 W. 55th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 581-1212, through Jan. 7.



By Harold Pinter

1978 Betrayal is a cold, clever game of a play being given a fittingly
cold and clever new production on Broadway. Crisply directed by David Leveaux
with three crackerjack actors in the lead roles–Juliette Binoche, Liev
Schreiber and John Slattery–it’s as fine, polished and nuanced a staging
as any fan of the work could hope for. Precisely because it’s so clear,
it also shines a light on how limited this usually ambitious author’s ambitions
are here. Betrayal is about an extramarital affair that, in itself, is
never made all that interesting to either the participating lovers or the audience.
It becomes an interesting puzzle because Pinter tells the story backwards (a
gimmick he didn’t invent but applies with admirable precision), burying
either a large or a small casual betrayal in each scene, so that the audience
is constantly preoccupied with thinking through who knew what, when, how and
why. The writing is always marked by his characteristic terseness and economy,
of course, and the nature of the mini-betrayals often can’t be discerned
until much later. All the little mysteries, though, mostly succeed in distracting
spectators from how few reasons they’ve been given to care more than superficially
about the characters or their emotional trials.

The closest
the play comes to a genuinely written role is Robert, who learns of his wife
Emma’s affair with his best friend Jerry, then fails for years either to
leave her or to acknowledge his greater attraction to Jerry. Slattery does an
excellent job of papering over Robert’s massive denial with a sagacious
social pride and above-it-all fortitude. Schreiber makes the essentially dull
role of Jerry as absorbing as anyone could, filling out its passivity and thickness
with his splendid repertory of brooding glances and pouts. Binoche is also ideal
as Emma: a fluttering, wistful bundle of wasted sensual potential who never
sees that none of the men she attaches herself to are really interested in her.
On top of all this, Rob Howell’s set is eloquently spare and antiseptic–three
tall ivory walls adorned only with narrow, shuttered windows and different,
scanty furniture pieces for each scene. The only problem, really, is the play,
which, for all its intellectual diversion, still comes off as a world-class
author’s glib descent into surface, mood and strategy.

American Airlines
Theater, 227 W. 42nd St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.), 719-9393, through Jan.