Reviewed by George Basler
The recipe for a good farce is a simple one: Put some outlandish characters in outlandish situations, and mix well.
Pulling it off, though, is no simple task. Get any of the ingredients slightly wrong, and the soufflé crashes, and the pudding doesn’t set.
Alan Ayckbourn’s 1979 farce, Taking Steps, which opened last weekend (Feb. 2-4) at the Cider Mill Stage in Endicott, is a case in point.
The production, presented by the Clocktower Theater Company, has its share of chuckles and laughs. But, despite a strong effort by a good cast, the play sputters at times and never reaches the upper realms of hilarity.
Ayckbourn, who is extremely popular in his native England, is a very busy playwright. According to his website, the 78-year-old has written more than 80 plays over the course of his career, including The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular and Bedroom Farce. Taking Steps is one of his lesser-known efforts.
The play’s visual gimmick is that the action takes place on the three floors of a crumbling Victorian house, but the set is only on one level. This requires actors to scamper up and down non-existent stairs. The Cider Mill cast, directed by Dennis Fox, pulls off this concept with great aplomb, providing some of the evening’s best chuckles.
Ayckbourn’s play, though, has its share of dead spots and lacks the razor-sharp vitality of a great farce.
The plot, as is to be expected, is convoluted beyond belief. It features a beautiful, if flighty, wife, who is in the process of leaving a pompous, wealthy husband who, to put it mildly, hits John Barleycorn a bit hard.
Other characters are her brother, who is so boring he constantly puts people to sleep when he talks; the brother’s fiancée, who is in the process of leaving him; an inept, nebbishy attorney, who represents the husband, and a shady contractor, who is trying to sell the crumbling house to save his business.
The crumbling house has a lurid past. It once housed a brothel and is allegedly haunted by a prostitute who was killed on the site years earlier. Local legend has it that her ghost will slip into bed periodically with unwitting victims who will be found dead the next morning.
While the brothel angle promises some wild hilarity, Ayckbourn does little to develop it, except for a snappy scene at the end of Act I that extends briefly into Act II.
Moreover, some of the play’s action moves at a slow pace, at least for a farce. I know slamming doors are a cliché, but the Cider Mill production could use a little more manic energy. “Farce is the most difficult thing to write, because it has to be a riot from beginning to end,” Ayckbourn has written. Taking Steps doesn’t quite achieve this.
Still, without a doubt, Taking Steps provides some very pleasurable moments. The opening night audience at the Cider Mill laughed all the way through, and the comments I overheard were extremely favorable.
The cast is first-rate. One standout is Jake Wentlent as the befuddled attorney who keeps mangling his sentences. Wentlent plays the character with a dazed attitude and puppy dog quality that is both funny and sympathetic.
Chris Nickerson gives a solid performance as the dipsomaniac husband. He expertly tosses off his lines with a great sense of timing and skillfully plays moments of physical comedy.
The same holds true for Jessica Nogaret as the eccentric wife. A particularly funny moment comes in the second act when her character applies a wrestling move to the hapless owner of the house. It’s hilarious.
Brendan Curtin and Adam Holley are solid as the befuddled brother and shady contractor. Curtin well plays his character’s increasing frustration while Holley draws laughs with his shifty New York attitude. (I know Ayckbourn is English, but the Cider Mill production moves the play’s location to upstate New York.)
Samantha Sloma has the unenviable job of playing the brother’s timid fiancée, the least showy role in the play. But it’s a key one because her interplay with the nebbishy attorney provides the show with some heart. Sloma does a very creditable job in portraying a young woman beginning to shed her shrinking violet personality.
Credit goes to Craig Saeger for the well-designed set and Barbara Erin Delo for the costumes. Particularly noteworthy are gaudy pajamas for three of the male characters. Their awfulness is a hoot and a half.
Taking Steps provides some smiles to relieve a bleak February.
IF YOU GO: Taking Steps will continue this coming weekend at Cider Mill Stage, 2 S. Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (Feb. 8-10) and 3 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 11). Tickets are $18-$28; purchase online at clocktowertheater.thundertix.com, or order by phone at 570-800-5020.