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Monday, 03 December 2012 17:22

Fun with Neville and Belinda

Written by Andrea Braun
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The Details

L-R: Stephen Peirick (Clive) and Emily Baker (Belinda)
L-R: Stephen Peirick (Clive) and Emily Baker (Belinda) stlas.org / John Lamb

Alan Ayckbourn’s plays walk the line between two extremes of British wit: biting satirical comedy in the manner of Noel Coward and comedies of manners ala Oscar Wilde OR the inspired humorous anarchy of Monty Python and Benny Hill.

Ayckbourn’s characters and situations bear elements of both styles, so the best ones achieve a sort of sophisticated silliness that amuses but doesn’t pander to the audience. Season’s Greetings, described somewhat inaccurately as “a farcical holiday shoot ‘em up” is that sort of entertainment.

As for that tagline, there are elements of farce, and there is a shooting, but there is so much more going on that delves into some serious stuff with the people gathered at the home of Neville and Belinda for a 3-night stay to “celebrate” Christmas. It’s a bit of a challenge figuring out who is connected to whom at first, but it sorts itself out eventually. Harvey (Jason Grubbe) is a retired security guard obsessed with western movies who thinks it’s a good thing to let children play with toy weapons. He is the uncle to Neville (Eric Dean White) and his sister, Phyllis (Teresa Doggett). Neville’s wife is Belinda (Emily Baker) and Phyllis’s husband is the hapless doctor (and amateur puppeteer) Bernard (Philip E. Bozich) while Neville is in retail. They have two children and their friends Eddie (Tom Lehmann) and Pattie (Wendy R. Greenwood) have three and are expecting their fourth. The children are much discussed but unseen. The group is rounded out by Belinda’s sister, Rachel (Rachel Hanks), and her guest, Clive (Stephen Peirick) who has just had his first book published.

I think it is no accident that we don’t see actual small people, even though the holiday festivities are supposedly centered around them with Bernard’s pathetic puppet rendition of “The Three Little Pigs,” the pile of presents, and Clive being dressed up as Father Christmas. In fact, these adults behave more like children than children do. They reflect many of our families who are comprised of people we might not choose to be with at all, if it weren’t for accidents of birth and marriage, being thrown together in a small space for an extended period of time. Everyone’s flaws are magnified in such situations which, of course, lend themselves naturally to farce. Ayckbourn has said this show is a favorite of his and based it on his own family get-togethers. He has directed it several times too, and I think he would approve of Elizabeth Helman’s rendition here. She milks the situations for maximum laughs and seems to find the limited stage space at the Gaslight an advantage, as it requires people to be in each other’s faces even more obviously. Rachel, who annoys practically everyone, has a habit of leaning right into someone and talking very loudly, so her physical tic reflects the claustrophobia everyone feels anyway.

Still, there is more to the parts than the whole here. It is worth the price of admission to see Teresa Doggett play an extended drunk scene. The interplay between Clive and Belinda reaches its apex in an ill-timed close encounter that comes right before intermission. Bernard’s puppet show rehearsal, while it does get a bit tedious, is fun to watch. Uncle Harvey’s pronouncements are delivered with crack comic timing (and a perfect British accent, which is the case with most of the cast. I suppose it’s worth mentioning that Doggett is Welsh, so she would sound authentic).

In a way though, this is a sort of Jekyll and Hyde play. It is quite funny, but it has a darker underbelly than most farce. The marriages we see leave much to be desired, as does the friendship between Neville and Eddie. Neville enjoys being in control and if things don’t seem to be going his way, he simply ignores them. Baker does a nice job of playing the unfulfilled wife who wants desperately to believe she is happily married, and finally demands attention. Pattie is worried about her relationship with Eddie and frightened that he doesn’t want the new baby. Bernard and Phyllis are just an all-around hot mess, but we laugh at them anyhow.

The set is a quite convincing old home with a living room and dining room, stairs to the bedrooms and a door to the kitchen. It has rather ugly but appropriate green wallpaper and nice crown molding. It is creatively imagined by Christie Johnston. Robin Weatherall’s collection of Christmas songs from the traditional to the offbeat are interesting, but the volume could stand to be turned down a bit. Johnathan Zelezniak’s lights add to the “festive” mood and JC Krajicek’s costumes are appropriate for each character. I have one nit to pick about the props though. The show is set in 1980, and at one point, a cassette player is a prominent feature of a scene, but Neville uses a contemporary cell phone. It would be simple to switch that out for an old-fashioned cordless prop phone, and I wish Props Designer Lisa Beke would do so. Overall, though, the production is technically quite good.

Part of your enjoyment of this show will depend on how much you like Ayckbourn’s quirky, talky, style. The play runs 2 hours and 30 minutes, not counting intermission. If you like it, and I did, it won’t seem long after it gets going. If Season’s Greetings should happen not to be your cup of nog, then you may feel a a bit trapped yourself. Not incidentally, Neville and Belinda’s last name is “Bunker,” which is not in the program’s credits. Considering the play and the players, I think it should be.

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