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August 23, 2013

TT: For summertime, a chilly comedy

In today's Wall Street Journal I report on two shows, a first-class regional revival of Absurd Person Singular and the Broadway premiere of a wretchedly bad new musical, Soul Doctor. Here's an excerpt.

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When a playwright is as prolific as Alan Ayckbourn, it doesn't make much sense to single out any of his shows as "the best." It's true, though, that "Absurd Person Singular," first seen in London in 1973 and on Broadway the following year, put Mr. Ayckbourn on the international map, and of all his 77 plays, it might well be the one that sums him up most completely, in tone no less than technique. Like many of his plays, "Absurd Person Singular" is so funny that you can easily overlook its darkness, but the Peterborough Players' production, outstandingly well directed by Gus Kaikkonen, balances these two aspects with exhilarating exactitude.

alan256.jpgThe three acts of "Absurd Person Singular" take place on successive Christmases and the characters are three unhappily married couples (plus a fourth couple that is never seen onstage, a favorite Ayckbourn trick). Their lives are messy and getting messier, and by play's end their complicated relationships have all been turned inside out. On paper this sounds like the stuff of farce, and "Absurd Person Singular" is for much of its length a farrago of comic craziness, but there's nothing amusing about the ultimate fates of the author's unfortunate characters. The only one who winds up happy, if you want to call it that, is the one who proves in the end to be heartless.

I've seen two previous revivals of "Absurd Person Singular," one on Broadway in 2005 and one at Massachusetts' Barrington Stage in 2010. Both were very well acted but not quite so well staged. This one, by contrast, succeeds on both counts. Mr. Kaikkonen, who directed the Mint Theatre Company's important Off-Broadway revival of N.C. Hunter's "A Picture of Autumn" earlier this summer, manages the play's whirling physical comedy with impressive skill. At the same time, though, he italicizes the discomfort of Mr. Ayckbourn's characters...

Moving from best to worst, we come to "Soul Doctor," a how-the-hell-did-this-junker-ever-get-to-Broadway musical that ranks very close to the top of my list of unforgettably awful shows. The subtitle, "Journey of a Rockstar Rabbi," tells part of the story, sort of: Shlomo Carlebach (Eric Anderson) was a folk-singing, guitar-strumming rabbi from Berlin who befriended Nina Simone (Amber Iman, who has superior pipes) and hung out with the likes of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger in Greenwich Village. While his life is fascinating, his hippy-dippy can-we-all-just-get-along songs were and are insipid in the extreme, and "Soul Doctor," whose book is by Daniel S. Wise, recounts Carlebach's tale in kindergarten-pageant style...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted August 23, 2013 12:00 AM

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