by Beth Young
As audience members were leaving Hampton Theatre Company’s opening night performance of “Alarms & Excursions,” they were delicately choosing words to speak to their theater partners, awkwardly pushing the exit doors and carefully testing the steps at the entry to the Quogue Community House as they fumbled with their electronic car door openers.
The advance press on this production called “Alarms & Excursions” a ‘delirious comedy.’ It was an unusual description, but after seeing this play I realized it was really quite brilliantly apt. This play will turn your world on its head, at least for a couple hours after you leave the theater, and that’s something all good theater should do.
Playwright Michael Frayn, perhaps most famously known for writing “Noises Off,” created a brilliant world of bumbling couples for this 1998 series of five maddening vignettes, and the HTC veteran four-person cast, under the expert direction of Diana Marbury, has a ball with this material.
With wigs, false mustaches and elaborate costume changes, Andrew Botsford, Rosemary Cline, George Loizides and Jane Lowe (referred to in the playbill as Actors A, B, C & D) take on the personae of a bizarre array of characters — all middle aged couples, all having difficulty communicating with one another, all publicly wrestling with their own personal pits of unfulfillment.
While much of the press about this play focuses on the difficulties posed by technology in modern life — technology that has only become more maddening since “Alarms & Excursions” was first produced in 1998 — it’s the way these characters interact with their spouses that is really the thread that ties these pieces together.
The play opens as Mr. Botsford and Ms. Cline welcome Mr. Loizides and Ms. Lowe over for dinner. But between a dangerous wine bottle-opening gadget, a chirping smoke alarm, a ridiculous whole-house phone network and the alarm on their oven, the two couples spend much of the evening running around and off stage, slamming doors, standing on or rolling under tables and trying to get Ms. Cline out the door to Casualty (This is a British play. She’s not dead.) after she slices her hand open with the bottle opener.
We leave these couples as abruptly as we join them, entering another world of a working class couple played by Mr. Loizides and Ms. Cline, as he arrives home from work with his lunch pail and she tries to explain to him what happened that day when a man came by to look at a thing that was malfunctioning in their house.
It’s an understated but brilliant sketch, Ms. Cline wearing work coveralls and pantyhose rolled down mid-calf, smirking as she deliberately sets her husband off on a discussion that they’ve obviously had many times before, Mr. Loizides’ character, morphed decades younger by a brown mop-topped wig, convinced that she is just a foolish woman, not realizing that she has deliberately set off this interaction.
In less deft hands, this type of dialogue could be terribly painful. But Frayn’s pacing is so frenetic that it’s the stuff of great comedy. If Thursday’s audience were capable of it, they would have been rolling on the floor laughing.
As often is the case at HTC, the set design by Sean Marbury and lighting by Sebastian Paczynski here are superb, and there’s one big brilliant set change at intermission that takes us to two hotel rooms, perhaps somewhere by the sea but overlooking a car park, where our couples, now a new set of characters, are trying to have a couple of good holidays.
If you’ve ever been on holiday with your mate, you will probably wince with familiarity at the drudging dialogue that ensues: where to put your suitcase, an examination of the mini-bar, a reading of hotel literature about the in-house restaurant, an excursion to the bathroom, an examination of the view of the aforementioned car park, the joy at finding a trouser press — a great novelty! — in each room.
But don’t fear, these characters take this drudgery somewhere superbly funny.
All four actors do a fine job with this material and are obviously quite at home on the stage. You will likely remember Ms. Cline and Ms. Lowe’s performances in last spring’s HTC production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” and Mr. Botsford as the President of the United States in last fall’s production of “November.”
It was great to see Mr. Loizides back on the HTC stage — his last on-stage role was in the company’s production of “Heroes” more than three years ago.
The actors in this show are all fine chameleons, and watching them become new people again and again in the space of two hours is a rare treat.
According to HTC, this play, like “Noises Off,” takes its title from a stage direction, “in this case the Elizabethan script note originally rendered in Shakespeare’s first folio as “alarums and excursions.” While “noises off” calls for sounds to be made offstage, “alarms and excursions” started out as a direction to the players to represent military action by loudly calling out “to arms!” and moving rapidly around the stage. The phrase eventually came to mean that everybody on stage should make as much noise as possible and run on and off stage repeatedly to depict chaos.”
In the case of this show, chaos is just what the doctor ordered. Bravo.
Performances will be held through June 11 on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturday June 10 at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
On Saturday, June 3, there will be a special benefit performance.The audience will enjoy a glass of wine or beer and hors d’oeuvres at the theater at 6 p.m. prior to the 6:30 p.m. curtain, and there will be a cocktail reception and buffet following the performance at the Quogue Field Club. Tickets are $175 per person or $300 per couple. For more information, visit www.hamptontheatre.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 631.653.8955.
Regular prices are $30 for adults, $25 for seniors (except Saturday evening), $15 for those under 35 and $10 for students under 21. Tickets are available at hamptontheatre.org or 1.866.811.4111.