Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's recent review of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom
Or maybe it's just the spirit of the brainy actress Nicole Angeli, as Diana, in Albion Theatre's Absent Friends a play by Alan Ayckbourn. And, to a lesser extent, that of Diana's self-absorbed husband Paul, played by the equally smart Jason Meyers. In any case, both are ready to explode. Diana is pushing out against all her disappointments, before a her own cosmic cataclysm. But so is Paul, in his own way. And when the fabric of their own shared space-time can no longer hold against the strain, each will snap back down into a tiny singularity. And try to start all over again.
I mean, neither one is the whole universe. He's not frogs, she's not chamber choruses, and neither one is that room in the Watergate Hotel where I once had a wild fling decades ago. But both are seemingly surrounded by frogs, and chamber choruses, and haunted by at least one wild fling mentioned in this relationship comedy, under the insightful direction of Robert Ashton. Oh, and it clocks in at just about two hours run-time, including intermission–which is probably another reason why it all seems so perfect to me.
Absent Friends starts off innocently enough. Evelyn (Annalise Webb) is just putting her baby down for a nap, as an afternoon tea party is getting under way in Diana and Paul's tastefully "mod" 1970s living room (by set designer–and fight choreographer–Erik Kuhn). Ms. Webb's Evelyn is a gimlet-eyed, no-nonsense young mom who will score dour laughs throughout the play, after an unexpected, uninvited tryst with Paul in the backseat of a car: a brief, awkward, one-time fling which Evelyn did not initiate (and which is one of at least two oddly dated plot points in the play).
Marge (Anna Langdon) is Evelyn's opposite, and Diana's overly helpful, overly sympathetic friend. Ms. Langdon employs the most arresting upside-down smile I've ever seen and wears a huge, ghastly 1970s monochromatic plaid dolly dress complete with matching black mini-vest (j'accuse, costumer Tracey Newcomb!). And like Gwendolyn and Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest, she and Evelyn will politely smash around like bumper cars, against each other's notions of propriety and common sense. It's brittle and shocking and clever.
But the show is mainly about intimacy, and how almost everyone needs it. And since it's a comedy, no one can quite respond to anyone else's preferred sort of intimacy in any meaningful way. Absent Friends is also (thanks to this director and cast) about how we trudge on in spite of it all. There are well-marked little narrative "entryways" into familiar types of stage speeches, as when Ms. Angeli begins a big soliloquy near the end in her "childhood yearning" speech. But each time, that "predictable" moment lands in a fresh new way.
Evelyn and Marge form the women's "chorus," and the supporting men (John and Colin) have their own very different one, as well: each group presents its own messages, though not in literal song. Mike De Pope is thrillingly vulnerable as jittery John, Evelyn's husband, a hapless cat food sales rep. And Ben Ritchie is excellent as the gently grieving Colin, whose girlfriend passed suddenly (about a year ago). Mr. Ritchie shows a great flair for offbeat humor.
Jason Meyers transcends his usual comic finesse to play an impossibly flawed Paul. He has completely rewritten his own life story mid-course to exclude his wife and children. And Mr. Meyers gracefully manages one of the most difficult feats for any actor on stage, turning rising laughter into sobs of grief. That comes near the end, as everyone's else's vain attempts at making a functioning social group come crashing down when, essentially, he's proven his point: that one should rather be a psychopath. Until he recognizes it's a hollow victory at best.
So maybe there's hope for us, yet.
Albion Theatre's Absent Friends runs through June 25, 2023, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.albiontheatrestl.org