CAMBRIDGE — Alan Ayckbourn’s “Absurd Person Singular” is set on three successive Christmas Eves, and by identifying them in the script as “Last Christmas,” “This Christmas,” and “Next Christmas,” the playwright conjures the three spirits that visit Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” What he depicts, however, is not the implausible redemption of a miser but the inexorable rise of a money-grubbing British middle class.
In the right hands, “Absurd Person Singular,” which premiered in 1972, can be absurdly painful or absurdly funny. The Nora Theatre Company production directed by Daniel Gidron that’s just opened at the Central Square Theater is both. It shows the three wives, downtrodden at the start, beginning to take control of their husbands as the play progresses. It also makes sense of the way, at the three cocktail parties, everyone gravitates toward the kitchen.
All the action of “Absurd Person Singular” in fact takes place in the kitchen of one of the three couples. At the first party, thrown by suburbanites Sidney and Jane Hopcroft, housing developer Sidney is looking to make a good impression on his guests, banker Ronald Brewster-Wright and architect Geoffrey Jackson. Jane, though, is more interested in making her kitchen spotless, and the party peters out when she has to run through the rain to the store for tonic and gets locked out of the house.
A year later, it’s Geoffrey and his pill-popping wife, Eva, who are hosting the Christmas Eve party in their flat, except they haven’t prepared properly because Geoffrey has just told Eva that he’s leaving her. Eva reacts by trying to kill herself, in five different ways, while her guests gather in the kitchen, mostly oblivious to what she’s doing.
Finally, we visit the Victorian home of Ronald and his wife, Marion. There’s no party in prospect this year: Ronald’s bank is failing, he can’t afford to heat the house, and Marion is drunk in her bedroom. But first Geoffrey, who’s also gone bust, and Eva, who’s still with him, drop by to commiserate, and then Sidney and Jane, successful and dressed to the nines, arrive to make these upper-class failures dance to their middle-class tune.
The three sets for “Absurd Person Singular” must look completely different, and Brynna Bloomfield’s trio for the Nora do just that. The Hopcrofts’ modest but shipshape kitchen is dominated by a box of Arm & Hammer baking soda and a bottle of Clorox bleach. The Jacksons’ brick-walled kitchen is higher-end but a mess: The plastic laundry basket is overflowing, and their Baskervillean dog, George, has left his pawprints all over the appliances. The Brewster-Wrights’ kitchen, with its armchair and carpet and big oval cherry dining table and poinsettia, is the nicest of all, but also the emptiest. One particularly deft touch: Jane is the only one of the three wives to have a double sink.
The acting is also first-rate. David Berger-Jones is a tall, handsome, engaging Sidney who bullies his wife but also seems to love her. Samantha Evans’s Jane, with a ridiculously tiny bow in her bouffant hairdo, is ditsy and obsessive about cleaning but never out of humor, even when, hair dripping, she’s pouring water out of her wellies. She starts out in a hideous orange frock with a ruffled hem, but by the end she’s wearing a fur coat (another nice original detail) and Sidney is sporting a tux. Liz Hayes begins as a half-swaggering, half-staggering Eva and rises to even greater heights in the second act, where, with no lines, she conveys a crazed, physical desperation as each suicide attempt fails. Bill Mootos makes the womanizing Geoffrey seem almost reasonable; Steve Barkhimer is a bluff, obtuse, good-natured Ronald; Stephanie Clayman brings authority to Marion, whether she’s dripping sarcasm or coming on to Geoffrey. The six of them turn “Absurd Person Singular” into a wistful plural.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.