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Previews: 05/20/10- Close: 06/27/10 Joking Apart
Reviewed for By: Andrew Cohen

Gili Getz ©2021  James Liebman and Anisa Dema (Background: Sebastian Montoya)

Apart from all the joking, drinks are poured, hearts are broken, secrets are revealed, and lives are unraveled on the stage at the T. Schreiber Theatre.  With an expertly acted and efficiently staged production, Alan Ayckbourn’s extraordinarily smart and cunningly perceptive comedy, Joking Apart, provides a blissful two hours and change at the theatre.  Aleksandra Stattin and Michael W. Murray lead an ensemble cast of game actors as Anthea and Richard.  They are an unmarried couple living together that has a house party where the new neighbors—the reverend, Hugh, and his wife, Louise—are introduced to Anthea and Richard’s friends.  These friends include Richard’s business partner, Sven, and his wife, Olive, as well as Anthea’s old friend, Brian, and his current girlfriend, Melody.  Though Brian’s girlfriends change—to the audience’s delight with Anisa Dema’s comic turns—we see the seven characters over the course of twelve years.

The play is divided into four scenes that take place in 1967, 1971, 1975, and 1979 respectively.  While not everyone’s fate is ruddy, the audience sure is while taking stock of all the twists and turns that life throws these fascinating people.  Their complications astound and surprise throughout the evening.  They are vital, intelligent, winning, and yet pathetic all at the same time.  As is often the case with Ayckbourn, when the audience engages with the text, their attention is richly rewarded.  Fittingly, laughs abound in this production as the exposition proves prescient in exciting and unexpected ways later in the play.  Laughs also abound because the dialogue and the actors are just so damn funny.  I won’t soon forget a certain game of tennis between a lithe Richard and a drunk if spirited Sven where not only athleticism but years of brotherhood, frustration, and competition are on the line.

Gili Getz ©2021  Matthew Murray, Aleksandra Stattin and Anisa Dema

Making all this flow naturally and entertainingly in the small space at T. Schreiber is no small feat.  Matt Brogan designed the very efficient set.  Eric Cope designed the serviceable lights complete with fireworks in the distance.  Anne Wingate’s costumes provided all the right information: period, season, and character.  But, though no fault of anything except the technical limitations of the space, the transitions between scenes—just one in each act—ran rather long to accommodate some complicated scenic shifts.  The sound designer, Andy Cohen, covered these with involving, if not exactly applicable, classical musical. Elsewhere, his apt design blended seamlessly into the action.

The director, Peter Jenson, is also the associate artistic director of T. Schreiber Studios.  I do not know whether or not he previously has worked with the actors as a teacher, but one gets the feeling he has.  Their confidence on stage, their comfort with each other, and their ease with the material is more than admirable.  All eight actors have to put on an English dialect, play characters that age throughout the piece, and mine through Ayckbourn’s witty words.  They do so effortlessly.  We look on effervescently.

Gloria Maddox Theatre : 151 West 26th Street, 7th Floor