TAKING STEPS: ALL UPS AND DOWNS
Barrington Stage Company’s production of prolific British playwright Alan Ackybourn’s farce TAKING STEPS is more interesting than entertaining. It’s funny enough, but it’s like watching inside-baseball theater. The playwriting emerges like parody of farce and the direction presents like a puzzle of stage-blocking cleverly solved.
First produced in England in 1980, TAKING STEPS has been rarely seen in the US since a brief Broadway run in 1991. The setting is a multi-story, old, ramshackle, perhaps haunted, Victorian country house: Ayckbourn conceived the two-act story to enfold on three floors, but staged on one performing level. Actors mime stepping up and down “flat” stairs from ground floor parlor, to second floor master suite, to attic bedroom. Hence, the title of the play. What’s more, Ayckbourn envisioned the play to be performed in the round, as it was in New York. (I couldn’t get confirmation, but BSC’s production might be the first TAKING STEPS mounted on a proscenium stage in the US. Ayckbourn reportedly disapproved of the one “end-stage" version TAKING STEPS had in the West End.)
Director Sam Buntrock, working with scenic designer Jason Sherwood, logisticates movement rather successfully, given the set's peculiar nature. The imaginary “stairs” form the upstage perimeter, and large pieces of furniture define the “floors”. Buntrock puts the attic downstage and inserts an “invisible” roof beam center stage , so every time a character ducks crossing the stage to get from the top of the attic “stairs” stage right to a small cot stage left, we are reminded what “floor” we’re on. The fake steps up and down actors make – often laughable, sometimes tedious - are unnatural and exaggerated, but, hey, that’s farce.
Plot takes a back seat to situation and character. The flighty and vivacious Elizabeth, a former dancer, who often breaks into classical and improvised modern movement, plans to leave her unappreciative, alcoholic husband, Roland, whose business is bucket manufacturing. (Don’t ask. It’s farce.) Elizabeth’s brother Mark, wants to open a fishing tackle shop (again, don’t ask) and is recovering from having been left at the altar by his would-be bride Kitty. She’s been arrested for solicitation. Mark rescues her from police custody and puts her in the attic for safe keeping. (You got it. It’s farce.) Roland, who rents the white elephant of a house, arrives with its strapping but hapless owner, Leslie, desperate to sell the ark, and Roland’s attorney, the feckless and nerdy Tristram. All this on a Friday night. By Saturday morning, motivations get misunderstood, identities confused, bed-partners mismatched. (Did I mention this was farce?)
Carson Elrod, who impressed Berkshire audiences last summer with his performance as a humanoid/robot in THE CHINESE ROOM at Williamstown, gets the plum role as Tristram and makes the oddball most of it. The cast plays the comedy broadly as farce requires, but Ayckbourn’s script has curious subtleties that require careful attention. When Elizabeth, for example, holds the helmeted head of the hulky Leslie (he’s a motorcyclist) in a thigh vice for minutes on end, one has to be alert to recall that as a dancer, she would have such strength of loin and limb.
Pacing proceeds amusingly, not belly-laugh rapid-fire. Overarching the set, suspended from the rafters on an angle, is an impressive, interconnecting set of stairways and doorways that have no other purpose than being decorative until the final moment. For spectacle, brief that it is, per square foot, it might be the most expensive prop that’s ever been erected on the BSC Main Stage.