Alan Ayckbourn’s “Bedroom Farce” seems to announce itself quite succinctly with its title. Yes, it’s a comedy, and yes, the action takes place entirely in three bedrooms.
But don’t call it a farce, says Maria Aitken, who directs the production of the play by Huntington Theatre Company that begins performances at the BU Theatre on Friday.
“Nothing overtly farcical happens. People don’t pop out of cupboards or bump into their wife’s lover. And there’s no sex, which Ayckbourn said is very characteristic of English bedrooms,” Aitken says, seated in a small office down the hall from where she’ll lead a rehearsal later in the morning. Instantly gracious and quick to smile, she speaks with the posh accent and precise diction one might expect from this graduate of the University of Oxford and daughter of a Conservative member of Parliament.
She’s also a credentialed stage comedian, having appeared in more productions of Noël Coward plays than any other woman. Her directing credits include the London premiere of “The 39 Steps” in 2006, followed by an American premiere staged at the Huntington the following year before opening on Broadway in 2008. The Broadway production netted her a Tony Award nomination.
This is the Huntington’s first time mounting a piece by the renowned English playwright Ayckbourn.
“It’s a very character-driven comedy and you must not over-stereotype it. You have to just sort of stay on the cusp of reality with it,” she says of “Bedroom Farce.” Aitken notes that Ayckbourn wanted to append the subtitle “A Comedy,” but the powers that be at London’s National Theatre, which commissioned the play, preferred the shorter version.
Aitken’s insights into the piece are well-earned: She played Susannah, the woman whose riotous disputes with her husband propel the story, in the London premiere of the play. That 1977 production was directed by the playwright. (Though the directing credit is officially shared by Ayckbourn with legendary British theater director Peter Hall, director of the National Theatre at the time, Aitken recalls that Ayckbourn essentially took over directing duties because Hall was stretched thin by other commitments.)
The show was a hit, spawning transfers to the West End and, later, Broadway. One early performance was helped out by the boisterous presence of John Cleese, then at more or less the peak of his Monty Python fame. His loud laughter paced the audience’s reaction, Aitken recalls, causing her to dig her nails into her hands onstage to help herself stay composed while waiting for each roar to die down. It made for a good anecdote when she later auditioned, successfully, for Cleese’s film “A Fish Called Wanda.” (She played Wendy, wife to Cleese’s Archie.)
“Bedroom Farce” turns on the action of four couples: Susannah (played in the Huntington production by Katie Paxton) and Trevor (Karl Miller), Kate (Emma Kaye) and Malcolm (Richard Hollis), Delia (Olivier Award-winner Patricia Hodges) and Ernest (Malcolm Ingram), and Jan (Mahira Kakkar) and Nick (Nael Nacer).
Susannah and Trevor are the only pair not seen in their own bedroom; they’re on a long evening’s misadventure, ruining Malcolm and Kate’s housewarming party with their fighting before making ill-advised after-hours visits to the homes of friends and family.
“It’s a story of two people’s inner children and the night they came out and ruined everything,” says Miller, seated with Paxton in a rehearsal green room at the Huntington.
Ayckbourn leaves much of the backstory of this quartet of couples open to interpretation. On this day it’s a bit more than a week into rehearsals, and the two actors are still working out the nuances of their characters’ combustible relationship. Do they love each other? Do they just love themselves? Is this evening a breaking point in their life together, or a ritualized dispute that they act out with regularity?
“Most people keep their intimate discussions and their intimate behaviors for intimate times, and Trevor and Susannah store up the most intimate stuff until they’re in public,” Paxton says. “They need a stage.”
The action cuts back and forth amid the three bedrooms, which are lined up side by side onstage — a choice Ayckbourn made to accommodate the unusual dimensions of the stage in London’s Lyttelton Theatre, according to Aitken. It’s a choice that makes the play “a nightmare to stage anywhere else,” the director says. She says lighting designer Matthew Richards plays a particularly important role, with lighting shifts that serve the function of slamming doors in an all-out farce, underlining comic moments and cueing abrupt transitions between scenes and locations.
Though it hits some of the expected comedic beats, “Bedroom Farce” is no standard-issue comedy. No spoilers here, but Trevor and Susannah never really appear to be headed toward that happy of an ending.
“It’s not uncomplicated because Ayckbourn is never uncomplicated,” Aitken says, “but it hasn’t got the dark streaks that his work can have. There are a few little ones but nothing that can make you stagger back, which some people may think is a disadvantage. But it’s rather nice to have a play that’s unabashedly funny.”
The Huntington is hoping audiences will agree — even if John Cleese isn’t around to lead the guffaws.
Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At BU Theatre, Boston, Nov. 11-Dec. 11. Tickets: starting at $25; 617-266-0800; www.huntingtontheatre.orgJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.