Remember how Bernard Slade’s play Same Time, Next Year caught up with its characters every several years to depict changing morals – and mores – over the course of time? (For those in need of a more recent example, I recommend the movie When Harry Met Sally, in which the titular couple met every five years until they were finally ready to fall in love). Alan Ayckbourn’s Joking Apart attempts a similar feat by having its four central couples meet over the course of a dozen years, shown in four-year intervals. His goal is to show how these various characters come to terms with their love lives, what’s attainable and what’s merely a pipe dream, and while it is similar terrain to that which has covered in better-known works like Bedroom Farce and The Norman Conquests, the playwright stumbles quite a bit in finding his footing here. Nonetheless, T. Schreiber Studio’s current production, directed by Peter Jensen – the New York premiere of this play – does an admirable job bringing this work to a new generation of audiences.
Richard (Michael Murray) and Anthea (Aleksandra Stattin) Clarke are a fairly modern couple. He’s a successful businessman and father, and she is a loving mother; the two, though unmarried, appear to be perfect partners. They are great cooks and hosts and love convening with their friends, old and new. But the more they interact with these friends, the more the cracks in everyone’s relationships begin to show.
For starters, there are the neighboring Emersons. Hugh (Michael J. Connolly) is a vicar who never knows quite what to say, and Louise, his worried wife (Alison Blair), feels resentment every time Hugh dines with the Clarkes, because she feels inferior about her own cooking prowess. Sven Holmenson (James Liebman) is the antithesis of Hugh; as Richard’s business partner, he’s an insufferably arrogant blowhard, but his wife, Olive (Stephanie Seward), too feels jealous of Anthea.
Then there’s Brian (Sebastian Montoya), who works with both Richard and Sven. His character feels like Ayckbourn’s most calculated creation in Joking. Each scene finds him visiting with a different girlfriend (always played well by Anisa Dema), but even though the program credits Dema as playing multiple roles, it takes a while to realize that each of her characters is indeed a distinct one from scene to scene. No matter, though, since Brian secretly pines for Anthea. And, as it turns out, so does Hugh.
But it is hard to imagine that this grass-is-greener story – purportedly Ayckbourn’s personal favorite of his works – was ever truly fresh. Joking is a fairly idle work; it is hard to feel a sense of urgency for these characters as the years go by. The play faces physical hurdles in addition to emotional ones. Despite Matt Brogan’s top-notch scenic design and Eric Cope’s lighting effects, several climactic tennis matches occur partially offstage, making it difficult for one to fully invest in the obscured action.
And yet Jensen’s cast respects the people they portray so much that ultimately, so do we. Stattin is a luminous presence, projecting both beauty and depth; it’s easy to see why she might be the object of such intense male affection as well as female derision. Blair and Seward both excel at projecting insecurity with comic finesse, and Connolly outdoes Ayckbourn’s own script to connect all the dots needed to justify some of Hugh’s incongruous actions.
All together, though, something feels absent from Joking. Slade’s show entwined comedy, drama, reflection on changing times and charming chemistry; the passage of years meant something had both been lost and gained for its two characters every time they reunited for another twist.
The four scenes in Ayckbourn’s work lack the same richness. There isn’t a dramatically compelling reason – or even a comedically diverting one – to substantiate a reason for each time these characters commune. While one would understandably want to watch these actors in a different piece, in this case, one also wants to run up and tell them that the party’s over.