THE BLOG
08/25/2014 04:06 pm ET | Updated Oct 25, 2014

First Nighter: Ayckbourn's Things We Do for Love Done Lovingly in Westport

Generally, it's not a good idea for playwrights to direct their own work -- or maybe anyone else's, for that matter. One of the few exceptions is Alan Ayckbourn, who almost always directs the first production of anything he writes.

That may be because, as he's said, he thinks of himself as a director first and a playwright second. This is a result of his spending more time on the directing than on the writing of his now 78 works. This, of course, says something eye-popping and jaw-dropping about how long he takes to turn out his consecutive hits.

As his own director, Ayckbourn can be considered the best he can find. But there's someone else putting in an impressive bid to be the best Ayckbourn director when the man himself is not available: John Tillinger.

Veteran helmer Tillinger has been earning his Ayckbourn credentials at the Westport Country Playhouse over several summers with How the Other Half Loves, Relatively Speaking and Time of My Life. (He directed Absurd Person Singular for the Manhattan Theatre Club.)

Now he's notched another first-rate production with Things We Do for Love, a 1997 Ayckbourn tense comedy that's little known here. The best I could work out was that the American premiere was a 1998 Buffalo event. Evidently, the hilarious play, rife with underpinnings of intense anxiety, hasn't been seen in these parts ever since.

Thanks to the benevolent theater gods it's back now -- and under Tillinger's sure hand. So Ayckbourn fan's had better scoot to Westport by September 7 on the assumption that too few of the offerings there transfer to Manhattan these days, even with Mark Lamos almost always artistically directing the seasons for maximum pleasure.

The plot?: After discussing plumbing problems with postman/downstairs renter Gilbert (Michael Mastro), Barbara (Geneva Carr, quickly becoming a top-drawer Ayckbourn interpreter), is just renting her upstairs London flat to old school chum Nikki (Sarah Manton) as a temporary measure. That's when Nikki's fiancé Hamish (Matthew Greer), a buff vegetarian, arrives straight from his most recent visit to the couple's currently unfinished home.

Within seconds, Barbara, who's harbored a passion for her boss, and Hamish take the kind of dislike to each other--only a few scenes later he calls her an un-Ayckbourn-like obscenity -- that audience members will recognize as a lead-up to an eventual two-sided thaw. Needless to say complications arise when this happens for Barbara--who's thought of herself as a life-long spinster -- and for Hamish -- who's been soldiering on with the sexually repressed Nikki. Pulled into the ensuing romantic-comedy vortex is Gilbert, whose admiration for his landlady is revealed to be more than gentlemanly admiration.

Usually, Ayckbourn looks closely (and never through rose-colored glasses) at marriage as a complex institution and at very specific marriages as stage-worthy specimens. Not the case here. Barbara has never married. Nikki is divorced from a batterer. Hamish left his wife for Nikki and may not be far from thinking about leaving Nikki. Gilbert's wife died some time earlier and he's carried on solo.

On Ayckbourn's mind is the consuming desire for love, mental and physical, and how that might play out. He's intrigued by the mental and physical tangles that ensue. Never at a loss getting laughs, Ayckbourn also has a master's knack for implying the nagging uncertainties that the search for love involves. It's his notable achievement that the feelings stirred up in the circumstances not only affect the characters but the spectators as well. You laugh at the shenanigans while experiencing stomach knots.

Ayckbourn fans know that a standard setting is a house, whether populated by couples, singles or family members. A Small Family Business calls for a three-story abode, and so does Things We Do for Love. To satisfy the requirement, James Noone expertly presents the three stories.

Only Barbara's living room, dining nook, the entry hall and a stairway going to the second-story flat are shown floor to ceiling. The second-story flat is cut-off at about the four-foot mark so that only the lower portions of occupying bodies appear--unless those busy bodies are prone, supine or otherwise on the bed. Part of the stairway to recreational painter Gilbert's flat is on display, and the top two or so feet of his modest dwelling can be made out. Not his ceiling, however, a ceiling that comes in for some surprising badinage.

It may be that what ultimately transpires between Barbara and Hamish will strike some viewers as credulity-straining, but Carr and Greer are so committed that they put dismissed to any qualms. Playing a Scot, Greer keeps his accent throughout, and that includes during a leading-to-denouement battle with Barbara, for which fight director Robert Westley also deserves congratulations.

Manton plays Nikki's innocence and rude awakening with perfection and does especially well in a sequence that explains the production's logo: a tie from which the bottom half has been cut off. Mastro takes full advantage of the several opportunities he has for scene-stealing.

All four actors look right in the costumes Laurie Churba Kohn has given them. One particular number--a supposed Stella McCartney design--is part of Barbara's wardrobe. That doesn't mean she's the one who gets to wear it.

Before the lights go up on the opening and between-scene breaks (there's an intermission), sound designer Scott Killian plays the 1977 10cc hit "The Things We Do for Love." Smart move. It has to do with the same conflicted behaviors Ayckbourn confronts so bluntly and wisely. The things we should do for love of Ayckbourn is get to this one.