Even before the curtain goes up on Cygnet Theatre's current Communicating Doors, you know a lot about what you're going to see. The set has seven doors in it, and that's usually a sign that a farce is coming, replete with a bunch of running and jumping and screaming and carrying on and slamming. One of the doors even swivels on a big dowel-like affair; you could thus conclude that this particular show takes an unusual--uh--turn. I just said it, though, so now you don't have to. I'm pretty nice that way.
Fact is, there aren't that many unusual turns here. Playwright Alan Ayckbourn has crafted a good outline about time as our most valuable ally, but his snappy dialogue is watered down with baseless characters. He's shooting for playful, but he somehow gives us pristine and uneventful; the latter traits smother Nick Fouch's not-a-hair-out-of-place set, and that misses Ayckbourn's mark even further. But director Esther Emery sees the silliness in the premise where even Ayckbourn can't--her talented cast takes it from there, and if nothing else, they give us a fair look at farce as a genre and how deceptively hard it is to get it right.
I say it all the time in this space, but this show illustrates it better than most I've seen: Zany situations, not characters, are the main forces behind this genre's success. And here, we have one seriously zany situation--a London sex therapist named Poopay (Jessica John) who, once inside a terminally ill client's hotel room in the year 2027, stumbles on a murder confession that sends her scrambling for the nearest exit. The door (the one that swivels) is actually a time portal that transports her back 20 years at a stretch, when she proceeds to save the lives of the would-be victims (her client's two ex-wives).
Dumb? No. George W. Bush is dumb. This is consummately absurd to the point of unacceptable, chiefly because Ayckbourn blows the perfect opportunity to exploit his people's natures. What better device than time travel to uncover Poopay's background or the skinny on client Reece Welles' illness or the blood-soaked motives of his business partner/henchman Julian Goodman (Manny Fernandes) or the reasons that drove Welles to off the ol' biddies in the first place? Ayckbourn doesn't supply the answers, so it's that much tougher for us to sink our teeth into the crazy scenarios on which farce depends.
But if Ayckbourn doesn't get it, the performers do. Except for Tim West, whose Reece is merely doddering as opposed to sickly, everybody's fine at maintaining the singularly frenetic pace that colors the weirdness of it all. That's the tricky thing about farce--the actor's natural tendency toward character development can't outstrip the situation, and this cast works off the ensemble feel such execution demands.
Communicating Doors is light and frothy and stupid, and it'll please anybody who enjoys a good laugh in place of a sturdy thought. But a word about the unusually talented Emery is in order: There's a wonderfully venturesome color to her best work--and that's not to say she's screwed up here. She hasn't. She is, however, utterly underused. Seems to me she's far more suited to conceptual, less cut-and-dried material, like she showed with Chrysalis: Rapechild and Tongue of a Bird and Cool As We Fly a while back. She'd outgrown the grunt work involved in things like Communicating Doors before she'd ever set foot in a theater.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Aug. 25. Communicating Doors runs through Sept. 23 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., College Area. $27-$32. 619-337-1525.
Susan and God, the current Lamb's Players Theatre entry, is a slow starter. Its doting, tennis-loving, upper-crust snobs give virtually no indication that the play is set in Great Depression America (the defining era for their opposite numbers), and beyond singing its praises, Susan herself (Sarah Zimmerman) doesn't elaborate much on the newfangled religious cult she's adopted. In time, we find she's glommed to this mysterious sect to escape the realities of an alcoholic husband and a troubled daughter.
But along the way, director Robert Smyth has molded things decisively and with the appropriate urgency in the show's latter stages. And having once been a member of a religious cult, I'm here to testify that playwright Rachel Crothers plays Susan's escapist card to a T. Wish I'd seen this show before I'd joined that sect of mine. It probably wouldn't have persuaded me not to get involved, but at least I would've had a decent evening at the theater before I signed my life away to those assholes.
Susan and God runs through Sept. 23 at the Paul and Ione Harter Stage, 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado. 619-437-0600. $14-$54.