October 2, 2010
"Alphabetical Order" is Much Too Tidy
I don’t know if there are Tony-style awards for stagehands. But if so, there’s no question that the crew to beat this season is the one handling the set for Alphabetical Order, the Michael Frayn comedy that's playing through Oct. 23 at the Clurman Theater in the Theatre Row complex on 42nd Street.
The show takes place in the clippings library of a down-on-its-luck British newspaper, where the cluttered tables and overcrowded file cabinets match the messy lives of the reporters and editors who drop in to find background info for their stories.
The time is 1974—long before the internet started committing fratricide on its print siblings—but the paper is teetering on the brink of closing. None of the staffers is paying much attention to that, however. Everyone is too busy having affairs—or wanting to—with everyone else. The plot kicks off when a junior librarian arrives and sets about putting all of this chaos in order.
Frayn began his career as a journalist (Frayn fans should click here for a lovely interview he did with the BBC about his recent memoir) and so the play is well steeped in verisimilitude. The library, a delightfully realistic design by Nathan Heverin, reminded me so much of ones I’ve known that I could almost smell the paper rot.
And Frayn gets the types right—the overly cerebral columnist, the maternal features editor, the affable mailroom guy—and the way they all dance around and bounce off one another. But, of course, this is a comedy, not a remember-the-good-old-days documentary. And that’s where Alphabetical Order falls down for me.
I admit that my humor gene isn't fully developed but that means I appreciate a really good laugh-out-loud comedy even more. This one only made me smile. And not all the time. Alphabetical Order is the first full-length play that Frayn, the author of the classic farce Noises Off, wrote and you can see him working out his kinks, just beginning to test how far he can push the nuttiness that a good farce, or even a smart comedy of manners, requires.
This production of Alphabetical Order, mounted by the Keen Company, might have played better during the ‘70s when all things British seemed cool. Or in England, where the play recently enjoyed a well-received revival. Or with a British cast.
The six Americans and one Brit in this cast are all swell and even maintain convincing British accents. But even so, and director Carl Forsman probably bears some of the responsibility here, this production lacks the devil-may-care flair that the Brits seem to bring to this kind of thing.
The show runs just slightly more than 90 minutes, plus a 15 minute intermission. The break gives the stage crew time to perform some predictable but still miraculous magic, which I appreciated even more by the end of the play. Those unseen stagehands don't get a curtain call but my applause was mainly for them.
Labels: Alphabetical Order