Christian J. Doyle and Lisa LeVan as married couple John and Evelyn in Absent Friends currently at Lakewood Playhouse. Photo by Dean Lapin.
By Russell Kasselman
Awkward silences and twitchy conversations in the Lakewood Playhouse’s presentation of Sir Alan Ackbourn’s Absent Friends make for good laughs, as just the right character or group of characters are left alone on the stage at just the right time to make you feel like a fly on the wall who is granted access to a nervous tick convention. The small space of the Lakewood theater is well suited for this performance, giving you the sense that you are part of the group of friends and welcome to chortle at their shortcomings without having your own revealed for the rest of the world to see. In this time of depressing news from all over the world, Absent Friends is a welcome escape into a situation where almost everyone is more laughably miserable than you.
Director John Munn leaves the set unobtrusive, keeping the focus on the actors who deliver the story of Paul, Di, John, Evelyn and Marge who invite their friend, Colin, who has recently lost his fiancee in a tragic drowning accident, for tea and consoling conversation. Colin (Matthew Vail), a confident up and coming young man, soon finds himself in the confusing role of comforting his disturbed lot of friends from his old neighborhood while their own lives edge toward upheaval. Colin’s constantly cheerful attitude and wide smile combined with his happy memories of his dead fiancee are in perfect contrast to the underlying uncomfortableness of Paul (Mark Lewington) and Di (Leischen Moore) whose marriage is slowly falling to pieces. John (Christian J. Doyle) and Evelyn’s (Lisa LeVan) dysfunctional relationship with seemingly only a newborn baby to keep it together merely adds to the fun, while Marge (Julie Drummond) can only helplessly watch the whole situation unravel.
Doyle’s portrayal of John with an unkempt crop of shocking red hair, scruffy beard, and ill fitting brown pinstripe suit (costumes by Diane Runkel), provide an infectious charming nervousness that will have you squirming in your own seat by the end of the play not only in sympathy with the poor sap but also because you won’t be able to stop laughing at his never-ending. non-stop twitchiness. Every mention of the dead fiancee has him bolting for the door but unable to escape before being dragged back into the situation by one or another of his friends.
LeVan, who has the fewest lines in the play, delivers Evelyn’s pronouncements about life bluntly and at just the right time to surprise and delight the audience with the bald-faced truth of a situation. Proudly wearing her Madonna Like a Virgin outfit complete with bangles and lace, LeVan adopts the disaffected demeanor of a young woman who has seen it all, done it all, and doesn’t believe any of it is worth her time. Through LeVan, Evelyn is clearly a young woman who feels she’s settled for less than she deserves and would abandon her current life, husband and child in a heartbeat if she could move up the social scale quickly by finding a rich man who might possibly excite her. Caught in her indiscretions, Evelyn is perfectly unconcerned with the consequences and indifferent to those she has impacted.
Paul, the hard charging man of industry, is played confidently by Lewington with just the right amount of gruff bluster and selfish indignation at the slightest hint that he might be wrong. It is a convincing enough performance to make you wonder why you would ever doubt him, and yet through the play he little by little reveals himself with equally believable emotional reactions that let you see he is human and does feel love for those around him.
Moore, in the role of Di, convincingly conveys her part of consummate housewife nearly forgotten by her children and almost always ignored by her husband, but still committed to her marriage and to proper social conduct no matter what the sacrifice. Moore’s fake smiles and brave faces eventually become too much to hold up and through the actress you can feel the pain of Di losing hold of all of what she had once held so dear. At one point, she delivers a shot of cream to Paul’s lap in a spectacular display of defiance of social order and selfish revenge that make you want to applaud her, but then her tears make you realize how broken her facade really is.
Drummond gives you an energetic shopaholic in Marge coddling her constantly out of work husband, Gordon (who is sick in bed and makes appearances only through pathetic but ultimately amusing phone calls to his wife). Drummond makes you believe in Marge, who shows she really cares about Di but doesn’t want to delve into the deeper side of life. She is constant support and encouragement for her friends, defending them with vigor but ultimately revealing she has no real anger in her even when she tries to chide Evelyn into apologizing to Di and taking responsibility for her actions. Throughout the play Marge is there to prop up Di’s facade and try to hold the group together by bustling about in her skirt and jacket that might have fit her a few years earlier but now is threatening to split at the seams.
Look for the actors to really find their stride when the photo album containing snapshots of Colin’s dead fiancee are passed around the room. All of their individual idiosyncrasies are revealed together for maximum effect. It’s a credit to the work of Munn who has inspired a great group of actors to bring forth humor in a time when it is so desperately needed.
Absent Friends will be on the Lakewood Playhouse stage through March 1, running every Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. with matinee performances Sundays at 2 p.m. Call 253-588-0042 to reserve tickets or go to www.lakwoodplayhouse.org to order tickets online.