Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Theater Review - Things We Do for Love

Things We Do for Love
Written by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Sanford Robbins
Where: Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Sunday, April 24, 2pm
Photos by the REP / Paul Cerro

While I'm certainly not a know-it-all when it comes to theater -- far from it, honestly -- I like to think that I am somewhat educated on the landscape, keeping up on goings on throughout New York City and our surrounding area.  Somehow, though, despite the fact that British playwright Alan Ayckbourn is incredibly prolific with over 75 plays to his name since 1959, I'd never even heard of him and a quick look at his Wikipedia profile led me to realize I'd only ever heard of one of his many works.  So I certainly entered the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players' production of Things We Do for Love with nary a preconceived notion.  Known for comedies that always have shades of darker elements of sadness and tragedy, Ayckbourn's Things We Do for Love takes a look at the euphoric highs and the desperate lows that accompany the human emotion of love, and the quartet of the REP actors who tackle the play's four characters bring believable emotional shading to the proceedings.

Admittedly, there's a comedic trivialness to Things We Do for Love that even as it nears its more tender conclusion it can't quite shake, but despite sometimes feeling like a more upscale episode of Three's Company, the play generally clicks.  At its center is forty-something Barbara (played by Kathleen Pirkl Tague), the rather hard-edged owner of a three story flat in London who is awaiting the arrival of her long lost chipper and bubbly college friend Nikki Wickstead (Elizabeth Heflin) and her fiancé Hamish (Mic Matarrese) who are planning on moving in to the upper level rental unit while their new home is being built.  Living in the basement flat is the awkward and socially inept Gilbert (Lee Ernst), a postman and all-around Mr. Fix-It, who happens to have a thing for Barbara despite her failing to reciprocate his romantic advances in the slightest.  When Nikki and Hamish arrive, seeds of jealousy begin to be planted inside the mind of the somewhat hard-nosed and work-focused Barbara who has never given herself time to form meaningful relationships with men.  As the quartet banter back and forth, the play's eight scenes taking place across eleven days gradually reveal the truest aspects of the characters' personas for both the better and the worse.

(nice shot of the set above -- fully realized main floor, with about only two feet of top floor actually visible to the audience)

The uniqueness of Things We Do for Love isn't found so much in its story, but rather in its set.  Taking place across the three levels in Barbara's abode, we in the audience are able to fully see the main floor living space of Barbara.  Stairs on the left of the stage lead to the upstairs rental unit where we see only from the floor up to a person's knees.  Stairs also lead to Gilbert's basement apartment of which we can only see the ceiling and about two feet below that.  Leaving the upper two-thirds and bottom two-thirds of characters out of the picture during certain scenes, it's often interesting to not only see how the actors utilize their body language to showcase their characters' feelings, but to also see how Ayckbourn cleverly takes advantage of this unique theatrical experience.  I've read that this play isn't often performed because of the sheer difficulty of creating this set, but the REP once again excels in this department (as it so often does) with the work of scenic designer Scott Bradley who creates not only a simple, yet lived-in main apartment for Barbara, but a lushly appointed bottom third and top third of the upper and lower units, respectively.

Coming directly off of the seriousness of To Kill a Mockingbird, director Sanford Robbins changes tone drastically with Things We Do for Love and takes his actors on a different trajectory as well.  The whole cast really shines with each member landing their comedic moments and Ms. Tague in particular excelling in showcasing the arc of her character's motivations as the initially stoic and spikily chilly Barbara travels on many an emotional roller coaster during the play's 150-minute runtime.  Tague rarely disappoints and it's great fun to see her take on a character that veers so different from her last portrayal of the adult Scout in Mockingbird.

The play itself at times feels a little stretched for its somewhat paper-thin (and sitcom-ish) premise, the initial motivation of Hamish to commit an act that sets the play's drama in motion never quite seems fully fleshed out, and Gilbert sometimes feels a bit too over-the-top (although actor Lee Ernst himself is perhaps giving his most amusing performance yet), but Things We Do for Love does a nice job of balancing the comedy at its core and the tinges of tragedy on its outskirts.  It's certainly a pleasant end to the REP's 2015-16 season.  (ed. note: I still have one more production to see, but Things We Do for Love was the last to open this season.)

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