Perhaps it was just my imagination, but there seemed to be a grateful quality to the laughter of the audience at Huntington Theatre Company’s delectable production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Bedroom Farce.’’
It was as if they were seizing on the chance to escape, even if only temporarily, from an attack of dread and despondency brought on by some collective waking nightmare. What that might be I cannot possibly conjecture. Has there been anything in the news lately?
What I can say with certainty, however, is that “Bedroom Farce’’ is a treat — even, in its wry, eccentric, small-scale way, something of a blessing.
Ayckbourn’s brand of frayed-nerves comedy demands a director with a touch that is deft, delicate, and sharp, all at once. The Huntington’s “Bedroom Farce’’ has one in Maria Aitken. Ayckbourn’s work also requires actors who can make a feast out of a morsel of dialogue, who can earn laughs by cocking their head or arching an eyebrow or furrowing a brow or rising suddenly to sputtering choler, and who can, when called upon, execute a pratfall that would make Cary Grant smile. And “Bedroom Farce’’ has a full roster of such actors.
What’s the play about? Nothing at all, really. The merest piffle. In “Bedroom Farce,’’ an unhappily married couple complicates the existence of three other couples as they careen through everyone’s bedroom but their own over the course of a long Saturday night. By the time they are done inadvertently sowing chaos, tensions have been awakened in those other three marriages.
This is familiar but enjoyable territory for Ayckbourn fans. In the course of writing more than 80 plays, the acclaimed British dramatist has been wont to plop a destabilizing figure or two in the middle of seemingly settled lives and let them wreak havoc. Think of Norman, the protagonist of his trilogy “The Norman Conquests.’’ In a 2013 interview, Ayckbourn told me: “Happy marriages are not attractive to playwrights. People sitting around smiling, contentedly enjoying each other’s company, may be wonderful in real life but they don’t make for good theatre.”
This is the first time the Huntington has staged an Ayckbourn play, and turning to Aitken was a smart move. Apart from her strong track record at the theater, which includes gems like “Private Lives,’’ “The Seagull,’’ and “The 39 Steps,’’ Aitken was formerly an actress, and she appeared in the 1977 London production of “Bedroom Farce’’ at the National Theatre. Her inside-out knowledge of the play is apparent.
Contentment is certainly scarce in the union between Trevor (Karl Miller) and Susannah (Katie Paxton), who are invited to a housewarming party by Malcolm (Richard Hollis) and Kate (Emma Kaye). It doesn’t take long for Trevor and Susannah to get into an all-out brawl that puts rather a damper on the party. (The play is set in the 1970s, an era that was essentially a sustained fashion catastrophe — a fact captured to perfection by costume designer Robert Morgan.)
With three bedrooms positioned side by side on the stage of the BU Theatre (set design is by Alexander Dodge), the action shifts rapidly from one to the other, cued by Matthew Richards’s lighting. Trevor decamps to the home of Nick (Nael Nacer), who is confined to bed with a bad back, and Jan (Mahira Kakkar). Trevor used to be romantically involved with Jan, which adds to Nick’s aggravation as Trevor natters on and on. Meanwhile, Susannah materializes, distraught and tearful, in the home of Trevor’s parents, Ernest (Malcolm Ingram) and Delia (Patricia Hodges).
One of Ayckbourn’s gifts is an ability to individualize characters within his crowded canvases, and Aitken’s cast responds with performances that are topnotch across the board.
Among my favorites is Ingram’s Ernest, one of those endearingly vague and slightly dotty Brits. Picture Bertie Wooster as a senior citizen with a white mustache. As Delia, Hodges projects the air of a woman who has developed a no-nonsense attitude precisely because her life is so suffused with nonsense, in the form of her husband and feckless son.
Nacer demonstrates a strong knack for physical comedy as the bellowing, bedridden Nick, who tumbles to the floor and makes his excruciating way back to the semi-safety of his pillow. Paxton lends a touching air of innocence to Susannah, a wild-eyed flower child who leans on self-help phrases like “I am confident in myself . . . I am attractive.’’ As sweet-tempered Kate, trying to cope with the sexual insecurity of husband Malcolm, Kaye utilizes a sing-song voice to very funny effect. Hollis makes Malcolm a hapless but well-meaning bantam rooster of a man.
They all drive one another crazy, and they make for splendid company, for us, if not for themselves. As we gird ourselves for a long, cold winter — in every sense — “Bedroom Farce’’ offers a welcome respite for the psyche, delivering equal doses of tonic and balm.
Play by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Maria Aitken. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company at BU Theatre, Boston, through Dec. 11. Tickets: 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.