The new Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre production, co-directed by Andrew S. Paul and Melissa Hill Grande, is at the Stephen Foster Memorial. House unfolds upstairs in the Charity Randall Theatre, while Garden takes place in the Henry Heymann Theatre down below. And when the actors in House say they're going into the garden, they run down the backstage stairs and into the ongoing action of Garden.
Thinking about the mechanics of it can really make your head spin. Timing -- an essential element in theater anyway -- becomes a bloody ruthless dictator here. Everything happening on those two stages has to happen exactly as planned or the whole thing collapses in a heap. How'd you like to be an actor in something like this and forget a line? Or, as can sometimes happen, jump a page? The consequences are hideous, and preparation for production must have been mind-bending.
But you know something? It turns out to be a whole lot of work for not much reward. The first, biggest and (ultimately) insurmountable problem is that the gimmick is pointless. The story told and the characters telling it are not deepened by the simultaneous playing … in fact, the meandering and curiously underwritten quality of the show is precisely because of the gimmick.
Ruled by the schematic, Ayckbourn must keep both plays moving along relative to each other, so often he has to pad out either House or Garden with dialogue, subplots or even whole characters. And you are constantly aware of the filler. People wander in and out of each play with no effect on the action around them; plot elements whimsically appear and disappear; motivation and resolution occur, or not, just because.
When you sit through the first play, you assume the holes will be answered when you see the second -- but that viewing only brings more questions. With a minimal amount of work, you could eliminate most of the characters and almost all the plot and end up with a longish one-act. Would it better? I don't know, but I was sure itchin' to try.
House seems to be Ayckbourn writing a brittle comedy of upper-class malaise. Here, Teddy Platt (Martin Giles), a serial philanderer, has finally driven his long-suffering wife, Trish (Helena Ruoti), to the breaking point by sleeping with Jo Mace (Beth Hylton), the wife of his best friend, Giles Mace (David Bryan Jackson). Meanwhile, a political fixer, Gavin Ryng-Mayne (Leo Marks), has come to ask Teddy to stand for Parliament.
Garden is Ayckbourn's farce-like play explaining why Teddy's political career will never happen. Teddy carries out his many infidelities in the garden -- in a strictly Ray Cooney burlesque manner. Plus there's a whole assortment of secondary characters populating this play -- why and what they're doing is never clear, but their "country oaf" quality and low-comedy shtick makes them feel like the "Rude Mechanicals" in the play within the play Midsummer Night's Dream.
Ayckbourn's second problem is that he was so busy working the stopwatch he forgot to create fully-realized characters and, instead, gives them one-note attitudes as shorthand for personalities. So with that in mind, if you're only going to see one of these plays (I can't in good conscience recommend seeing both), I recommend House. This play really belongs to Trish and Gavin, and while Ruoti and Marks have only one note to play (intelligent detachment), they both play the shit out of it. Trust me, with all of Ayckbourn's bombastic monotony, you'll appreciate the underplaying.
Meanwhile, as Teddy, Giles has to straddle the conflicting styles of the two worlds and is more at home in House. (In fact, the pants-down vaudeville of Garden seems to slightly embarrass him.) Nike Doukas may or may not be brilliant as a visiting foreign actress but it's hard to tell since her dialogue -- and she has mountains of it -- is completely in French. (Why Ayckbourn has written 15 minutes of his play in another language is anyone's guess.)
And my heart goes out to Anwen Darcy and Sean Mellott as juvenile leads who have to pretend -- for two whole plays!!! -- that they won't end up exactly how we know they will. It's excruciating to watch; I can't imagine what it must be like to play.
House & Garden continue through July 17. Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland. 412/394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org