Two River Theater’s ‘Absurd Person Singular’ is both funny and unsettling

From left, Michael Cumpsty, Mary Birdsong, Scott Drummond and Liz Wisan in "Absurd Person Singular."


From left, Michael Cumpsty, Mary Birdsong, Scott Drummond and Liz Wisan co-star in “Absurd Person Singular.”

You know Christmas Eve isn’t going well when you seem to be spending most of your time in the kitchen. And if that happened three years in a row … well, you’d really be having a streak of bad luck, wouldn’t you?

“Absurd Person Singular,” which is being presented at Two River Theater in Red Bank through Feb. 1, is about three consecutive Christmas Eves when three British couples get together, once at each couple’s home. And, for various reasons, a lot of the actions ends up taking place in the kitchen. The 1972 play, by Alan Ayckbourn, has three acts (one in each kitchen), and at the Two River Theater, each kitchen gets its own set; the stage revolves so that each kitchen comes to the front when needed (as a riff from Blood, Sweat & Tears’ 1969 hit “Spinning Wheel” plays on the theater’s sound system).

Director Jessica Stone’s cast shows near-perfect timing delivering the dialogue. Ayckbourn’s writing is often mordantly witty, but he includes quite a bit of broad physical comedy, too, so the actors have to deliver their lines precisely and dryly, but they also have to clown it up, when required. And they are all up to the challenge. Michael Cumpsty played Ronald, a rich, aloof banker married to Marion (Mary Birdsong), a budding alcoholic. Geoffrey (Scott Drummond) is a playboy architect, and Eva (Liz Wisan) is his long-suffering wife. Sidney (Brooks Ashmanskas) is a crass working class sort looking to better himself, and his wife Jane (Melissa van der Schyff) stays cheerfully focused on homemaking tasks, even at other people’s homes.

The first act is the tamest of the three; the second act increases the amount of black comedy and gets wildly chaotic, and the third acts puts an even darker spin on everything, though in a really funny way. Unpleasant things about all the couples are unearthed over the course of the three gatherings, and by the end, everyone is at a different place (socially, financially, romantically, etc.) from where they started — and generally not in a good way. “Absurd Person Singular” is one of those comedies that delivers the laughs, but also says something unsettling about the human condition.

Scenic designer Charlie Corcoran makes sure each kitchen expresses the personality of each couple, and costume designer Gabriel Berry’s outfits bring back memories of the ’70s. The pants that Drummond wore in Act 1 reminded me of my favorite pair of pants, back in junior high school, 40 years ago.

“Absurd Person Singular” will be presented at the Two River Theater Jan. 22-25 and 28-31 and Feb. 1. For information, click here.


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