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'Absurd'-ly hilarious farce puts audience in the holiday mood

The holiday season is always stressful. Buying gifts, managing guests and making sure the liquor cabinet is well-stocked — to help manage the guests — can drive a person crazy. Such is the case in Trinity Repertory Theatre's production of "Absurd Person Singular."

Set in 1970s England, Alan Ayckbourn's comedic romp tells the story of three middle-aged couples who take turns hosting holiday soirees on Christmas Eve. Though the play lacks depth and packs a lengthy run-time — two-and-a-half hours — it makes up for it with plenty of holiday-induced hysterics.

The first act takes place in the Hopcroft household, where Sidney (Stephen Berenson) and Jane (Angela Brazil), a middle-class couple with aspirations to elevate their social standing, host a get-together with members of higher society — the Jacksons and the Brewster-Wrights. Sidney hopes to acquire a loan from Ronald Brewster-Wright (Timothy Crowe) and make connections with prominent architect Geoffrey Jackson (Fred Sullivan Jr.).

While Jane obsesses over cleaning the small house — going so far as to wipe down the washing machine — Sidney merely walks about, generally un-tidying her work and counting down the minutes until their guests' imminent arrival.

The first act is largely carried by the combined efforts of the actresses. Marion Brewster-Wright (Anne Scurria) is initially all smiles, acting the part of the perfect, demure English woman. Proclaiming the Hopcroft's kitchen "simply dishy," she becomes fascinated with the washing machine, saying, "Whites. Colored. My god, it's apartheid!" Her biting humor — straight gin is the only drink strong enough for her — is much appreciated. After she has had too much gin, she switches from kindly society gal to judgmental snoot, telling her husband in secret that they must leave this "loathsome little house" as soon as possible.

Eva Jackson (Phyllis Kay), though not prominent in the first act, sets the stage for an energetic second act. High on pills to "keep her sanity," Eva is simply a joy to watch with perfect comedic timing and biting one-liners.

Jane spends most of the first act cleaning or locked out of the house in the rain, simultaneously delighting and annoying audiences — really, the dusting can wait until tomorrow — with her hysterical outbursts as her night crumbles around her.

The men — bossy Sidney, oblivious Ronald and salacious Geoffrey — have some amusing one-liners but are for the most part carried by the acting of their female counterparts.

Act two jumps ahead a year, with the Jacksons hosting cocktail hour this time around. There's only one or twenty problems, though — in the midst of a fairly messy separation, the Jacksons have forgotten their plans. As Geoffrey, who is leaving Eva for his mistress, hurries to water down the gin, a silent and pajama-clad Eva sits at the kitchen table, scribbling away at a notepad.

With Jackson out of the room to let in the Hopcrofts, Eva opens the kitchen window and steps onto the ledge — leaving the audience with no doubt what her scribbling was. As she prepares to jump, Geoffrey returns and drags her back in, throws away her suicide note and calls her doctor.

Begin suicide attempt number two. Eva writes another note and opens the oven. Enter the Hopcrofts. Jane, believing Eva to be cleaning the oven, shoves her aside and decides to be neighborly, saying rather inopportunely, "I'll clean that oven if it kills me." Meanwhile, Sidney sets out to fix the Jacksons' leaky sink, following his wife's example. When Jackson asks the two to watch Eva while he gets the doctor, Eva resumes her planning.

Though she does not speak a single line throughout the entire second act, Eva is undoubtedly the star. Her suicide attempts — running at a propped-up knife, hanging herself from the lamp fixture and sniffing a bottle of Vicks, for example — somehow become comical. She infuses her desperation with the right amount of frustration (people keep throwing her suicide notes away!) and determination (nailing said suicide note to the table when all else fails) to keep the audience laughing rather than crying over her antics.

The chaos of the second act heightens Eva's plight. Ronald gets electrocuted trying to fix a light, a drunk Marion admires the family's oven and George, the Jackson's dog, barricades the whole lot in the kitchen. When Jackson returns home with the doctor on his heels, he finds two semi-conscious women, one electrocuted man and an oblivious carolling couple. End act two.

The third act is set another year in the future. Each couple is still together and dealing with its own issues. The Jacksons and Brewster-Wrights have fallen on hard times while the Hopcrofts have risen steadily, causing new tensions and tribulations this holiday season.

The script of "Absurd Person Singular" is great because of its simplicity — it glosses over the heavy issues with laughter and relatable characters, such as the neat freak and the drunken guest. After a stressful month of midterms, it's the perfect thing to relax the brain cells because it doesn't require much thinking, just pure enjoyment.

The production is also well-executed, with a strong cast led by Kay and Scurria. Though the actors could use a few more lessons in mastering the English accent, they put on a good show and keep the lengthy performance from feeling too drawn out.

"Absurd Person Singular" is pure farce — no underlying themes or experimental acting. It delivers a good time and lots of laughs, a rarity worth the trip down the hill.

"Absurd Person Singular" runs at Trinity Repertory Theatre through Nov. 21. Tickets start at $12.


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