From bleakness springs hope in ‘Absurd Person’
The Christmas music jingling through the speakers as the audience filed into the Peterborough Players theater Tuesday night seemed at first rather jarring and out of place for August. However, despite the humid evening outside, the dress rehearsal of “Absurd Person Singular” managed to evoke the nuances of the holiday season, from merriment to chilly loneliness, as well as a healthy dose of the comical and the bizarre.
The play opens in the stark and glaringly spotless kitchen of Sidney and Jane Hopcroft, whose shrill Cockney accents and frenzied preparations indicate that they are desperate to impress their wealthy Christmas Eve guests. After each of them disappears behind a door into the hallway several times and dashes frantically back in, we finally meet their guests, one by one: Ronald Brewster-Wright, a greying banker; his wife, Marion, who raves about the Hopcrofts’ kitchen but cannot wait to escape; Geoffrey Jackson, an architect and a bit of a womanizer; and his shaky wife, Eva, who’s barely on stage a minute before she starts swallowing pills for her nerves. At first, despite their agitation and bickering, we’re sympathetic to the working class Hopcrofts in the face of the snobbery of their sharply dressed counterparts.
By Act Two, after the first of two intermissions, it’s Christmas one year later, and the tables have begun to turn. In the Jacksons’ kitchen, a greying Eva sits silently in utter helplessness as her husband and then their Christmas guests arrive, completely unaware of her suffering. The pairing of her speechless despair with the jovial guests bustling around and cleaning her kitchen is black humor indeed. When Eva, played with convincing despondency and exasperation by Susan Riley Stevens, finally opens her mouth, it’s to sing. We are left to wonder if her gesture means she’s arrived at some clarity, or if she’s simply surrendered to the meaningless absurdity around her. Perhaps there’s a hint of hope, since the other characters finally notice her and join in her song.
The play pays particular attention to the power dynamics between men and women. Rather than striving for overt social commentary, it offers an intimate glimpse into three relationships in varying degrees of dysfunction, including the authoritativeness husbands try to exercise over their wives when no one is watching. Especially poignant is when Mr. Hopcroft, who constantly admonishes his wife for her compulsive cleaning, loses his temper with Mrs. Hopcroft for spilling a dish at a cocktail party. “But I didn’t clean it!” she shrieks, with a combination of pride, humor and wide-eyed frenzy.
Mr. Brewster-Wright, meanwhile, manages to think he means well towards women without ever thinking to consider them human, like himself. Greg Wood portrays him with enough bluster that, when he calls his neglected wife “old sausage” as a term of endearing condescension, we despair with her for his total obliviousness to her plight. Lisa Bostnar, as Mrs. Brewster-Wright, is equally convincing in Act One as a composed and dismissive socialite in glittering jewels and in Act Three as a deeply unhinged former beauty, barefoot and floundering for some acknowledgement of her existence.
That feeling of utter isolation in a room of people affects all of the characters at some point, often with enough exaggerated comic bizarreness to draw chuckles from the audience or their fellow characters. Still, though most of the humor in “Absurd Person Singular” carries a twinge of bleakness, the laughs often manage to carry a good measure of genuine joy or playfulness. At one point, assorted frantic wives and husbands cocoon a shivering and hapless Mr. Brewster-Wright in laundry to keep him warm, and when Mrs. Hopcroft earnestly piles onto him a pair of women’s underwear, the moment’s preposterous delight outweighs the collective on-stage suffering.
Ultimately, it is only when the six characters embrace the joy of the absurd, spontaneously breaking into song in harmony or playing a childish game, that they shake the confines of their elaborate and bizarre relationships. The play’s realities — the couples’ husband-and-wife power dynamics, their descent into poverty or rise to affluence, the way the men stubbornly cling to an idea of their social dominance over each other, the women’s preoccupation with each other’s kitchens — never fully disappear. But when they’re forgotten for a moment, the characters smile despite themselves. And, despite our own realities, so do we.