A comedy of despairs

The Pear presents Alan Ayckbourn's "House & Garden"

Premiered in the playwright's native England in 1999, Alan Ayckbourn's "House & Garden" is a rare theatrical phenomenon: a pair of plays intended to be performed simultaneously, by one cast, for two audiences.

This ambitious production calls for fourteen actors and two theaters; in taking it on, The Pear has expanded into an auxiliary space two doors down from the main black box. Be forewarned: The "garden" is not air-conditioned, though hand-held fans are provided. Dress for heat, especially at matinées.

The temperature of the second theater notwithstanding, "Garden" is far the steamier of the two productions -- the ribald farce to "House"'s more contained drawing-room comedy. In both cases, a whole slew of dramas unfold across one afternoon at a country estate in Yorkshire, most of which have to do with men who won't behave themselves and the women in their lives who suffer as a result.

In "House," we first meet the impervious Trish Platt (commandingly played by Betsy Kruse Craig), the daughter of an admiral who has decided to completely ignore her philandering dolt of a husband, Teddy.

"Infidelity," she coolly decrees, "is no reason to call off lunch."

As played by Dan Kapler, Teddy is so hapless -- and so clearly unhappy -- that the more brazen his dalliances become, the more sympathy one feels for him. By contrast, Teddy's old school friend Gavin (Scott Solomon), a shadowy figure caught up in the political machinations of Downing Street, is as Trish observes not so much a fox as a lizard: cold-blooded and calculating.

Gavin has come to the Platt estate in hopes of ensnaring Teddy as a kind of decoy for the Conservative Party, and his visit happens to have coincided with a garden fête, as well as the appearance of a glamorous French film star with a serious drinking problem. Trish and Teddy's precocious teenaged daughter, Sally (Briana Mitchell), is a left-leaning member of her school's political society: a young woman with a strong will, powerful ideals and a coat of emotional armor befitting her circumstances. Like her father, Sally has a bad habit of interrupting her interlocutors, but unlike him she has enough intelligence and dawning self-awareness to catch herself at her own game.

While Trish and Sally spend much of their time inside the house, Teddy retreats to the garden, where in the course of a few hours he holds a rendezvous in the shrubbery with his best friend's wife, and is caught in flagrante with the French film star Lucille Cadeau (Nicole Martin).

Meanwhile, a whole cast of working class characters who pass through "House" as little but ghosts come to life in "Garden." Among them is the gardener Warn (Nicolae Muntean). He's a man of few words, but here on his own turf he proffers the occasional bon mot ("Bloody women!") before getting on with the mowing. He's joined by mother-daughter housemaids Izzy (Patricia Tyler, who nails it) and Pearl (Lucy Littlewood) in an unlikely threesome. Their antics are punctuated by the incessant arrivals and departures of workers Lindy and Barry Love (Janine Saunders Evans, Brian Flegel), who offer up yet another example of romantic love gone wrong. Teddy's best friend and next-door neighbor Giles (Kurt Gravenhorst) and his son Jake (Jeremy Ryan) are the only decent men around, yet in their anxious vigilance they are as much neutered and ineffectual as they are good.

Scenic designer Jaime Giovannone conjures two distinct sets with limited space and resources. Particularly admirable are the gurgling fountain in "Garden," and the French doors in "House" that swing open to a dining room no bigger than a broom closet that's nevertheless the hub of the day's activities.

Though each play is intended to stand on its own, it's worth seeing both to appreciate the production's cleverly interwoven narratives. As directed by Jeanie Smith, "House & Garden" together capture Ayckbourn's Shakespearean delight in social commentary: the ribbing of the unsophisticated working class on the one hand, the mocking of the vacuous pomposity of the upper class on the other.

The plays are designed to be seen in either order, though having seen "House" first, I'd advocate for that. For those who really can't make it to both, you've got your pick between the simmering tensions of "House" on the one hand, and "Garden"'s slapstick physical comedy on the other. Yet no matter how goofy things get in the garden, the plays are ultimately about household tragedies: infidelity, lies, loss, and the way we armor ourselves against the slings and arrows of it all.

Right at the heart of this pair of productions are Trish and Sally: strong women who must decide whether to "go down with the ship" or to save themselves.

Marriage, it seems, isn't the only happy ending.

What: "House & Garden" by Alan Ayckbourn

Where: The Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave. Unit K, Mountain View

When: Through Oct. 5 with shows Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday at 2 p.m.

Cost: Tickets range from $20 to $30.

Info: Go to thepear.org or call 650-254-1148

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