Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ayckbourn's "Comic Potential" Pays Off at Peninsula Players

If I could choose to suddenly write like somebody other than me, I’d probably pick British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. I’m not into farces at all, and that’s what most people think of when they think of Ayckbourn, so that may seem odd. But the reality is, he really isn’t that farcical. He’s funny. He writes about real, sad, silly people under the laughs, but he never apologizes for the laughs, and he happens to think that comedy is just as important as – or maybe even more important than – tragedy.

Among his plays, “Comic Potential,” a charming boy-meets-girl where the boy is human but the girl is an android, stands out as a perfect illustration of that point. Ayckbourn writes that “Comic Potential” was written “to answer all those people who keep asking me why I didn't write a serious play. I'm very happy to be privileged enough to write comedy. It doesn't mean seriousness has to go out of the window."

And in “Comic Potential,” which is packed full of gags from the classic comedy playbook, including double and triple takes and even a pie in the face, there is definitely some seriousness going on. As he looks into what might happen if an android (in this case, a soap opera actor or actoid named JC-F31-333) began to exhibit a surprising sense of humor, Ayckbourn finds ways to talk about love, connection, life, death and the very nature of comedy.

“Comic Potential,” is, as he puts it, a comedy master class.

The play is set in the foreseeable future, when actors have been replaced by actoids, and a once-famous director named Chandler Tate is stuck in the hinterlands directing a flea-bitten soap opera called “Hospital Hearts.” Writer Adam Trainsmith, a big fan of Buster Keaton and other Golden Age comedians, arrives, hoping to learn something at the great man’s knee. But Tate is too far round the bend to have any interest in mentoring a bright-eyed newcomer like Adam.

The master class part comes when Adam notices that JC-F31-333, or Jacie Triplethree, starts laughing when a fellow actoid screws up his lines. But actoids can’t laugh unless they’re programmed to. So what in the world is wrong with Jacie Triplethree?

Adam sees her sense of humor as comic potential, and he begins to teach her the ways of comedy on the side, hoping to create a career for her and himself, and rejuvenate Chandler Tate’s directorial prowess. Adam also begins to fall in love a little, and Jacie’s internal soundtrack (music that comes soaring out of her chest at emotional moments) indicates she just might be feeling the same way.

The plot is complicated by a battle-ax of a superior named Carla Pepperbloom, who thinks JC/Jacie is malfunctioning and annoying and ought to be melted down. So Adam takes Jacie on the run to save his android lady love, the movie he wants to make, and his hope for the future of comedy.

As directed by Peter Amster for Peninsula Players in Door County, Wisconsin, “Comic Potential” is quite adorable. Amster’s directorial mission is aided immensely by Erica Elam, who plays Jacie with energy, enthusiasm and loads of charm. She’s believable as a robot – sort of – and yet also appealing enough for us to understand why Adam (winningly played by Sean Fortunato) would run off with her. Whether she’s dressed in a garment bag or boogying down like she got stuck inside Dance, Dance Revolution, Elam’s Jacie is sympathetic and genuine, a heroine you can root for.

Tim Monsion is just the right degree of scruffy and cynical for Chandler Tate, the washed-up director who used to be somebody, and Carmen Roman was made for snappy roles like Carla Pepperbloom, the exec who eats underlings for breakfast. Linda Fortunato (who also choreographed Jacie’s bravura dance performance), Neil Friedman, Andrew Keltz, Kevin McKillip and Karen Jane Woditsch are all good in multiple roles as soap opera actoids and assorted nuts and bolts Adam and Jacie meet on their travels.

Rachel Laritz’s costumes are fine (I especially liked the tall white wedgies on our girl Jacie when she was acting as a nurse), but I wasn’t crazy about Jack Magaw’s set design. Pieces moved on and off swiftly, always a bonus, but the TV set looked too much like a barn for my taste, and some of the smaller pieces, like the bed from a seedy flophouse, weren’t really trashy or flashy enough.

My only quibble otherwise involves timing. At 2:20, it’s about 20 minutes too long. I’d have trimmed the clothes-trying-on and Bible-reading scenes myself, plus the indelicate part where Adam has to duck under the table to empty Jacie’s, er, waste bin, is funnier than I expected, but a bit too long, as well. I saw Peninsula Players’ “Comic Potential” on opening night, and it may be that they'll work out some of the comic timing kinks as they move on through the run. Hope so. It’s already a cute, sweet, funny show. It just needs a bit more speed to reach its full... Comic potential.

“Comic Potential” continues at Peninsula Players through September 5th. If you’re planning a trip to Door County, take some time out and discover this show. (Peninsula Players has kindly offered a video preview.) The actors and the material are terrific, and the setting at Peninsula Players is pretty terrific, too.

If you aren’t going to Wisconsin, but you’d still like to see some Ayckbourn, our very own Heartland Theatre offers “Woman in Mind,” opening September 16th.


  1. Julie, I'm so envious of you and Scott getting a chance to see this! It's one of the Ayckbourns I haven't yet managed to see, and repeated readings of the script make it seem playable and delightful.

    And this production sounds excellent, with the acting strength right where it needs to be: Jacie, Adam, and Chandler (though in fact it sounds like there weren't any real weak links). So glad you saw a good version of it, and it certainly deserves to be more widely seen. A perceptive review like this will surely help!

  2. Did you have a chance to look at the video? That should flesh out my descriptions of the actors. I was surprised to see Sean Fortunato's name in the program as Adam, since I had just seen him do Count Carl-Magnus (a whole different kettle of fish) so well a few nights before. But he was just as good as Adam, which I found very impressive. Versatile actor, that one.

    His real-life wife, Linda Fortunato, was also very good and made Trudi Floote more of a 3-D person than I expected from the script. Plus she was excellent (and also very different) as the vapid chick trying on dresses at the same time as Jacie.

    I wasn't sure, after reading the script, how well it would come off on stage, what with the running around to different locations and some devices that seemed difficult to me (like having the servant/assistant who does all of Lester Trainsmith's speaking for him) but they managed nicely.

    I love Ayckbourn. I certainly hope we gets lots more of his plays performed at lots of places. Why not?

  3. Yes, I saw the video, but it's so frustrating, because I want them to continue and show me the whole play!

  4. You have till Sept. 5 to get to Wisconsin.

  5. This script is also an interesting departure for Ayckbourn structurally, because most of them are single-set, while a few have lots of short scenes in different locations (The Revengers' Comedies, Private Fears in Public Places). But this is the only one of his I can think of, wherein Act I is in a single location with no lapse of time, and then Act II switches into a cinematic pace with short scenes all over the place.