Taking Steps | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Taking Steps 

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TAKING STEPS

Touchstone Theatre

Taking Steps has one clever visual joke: A three-story house is depicted on a single level, forcing the actors to climb and descend invisible "stairs." They look silly doing this--which is fine, this is a farce.

The play also contains one good role: Tristram is a young attorney so shy and nervous that he hyperventilates when he talks, and punctuates everything he says with a meek "sorry." Actors who play Tristram have a ball with the part. Roger Mueller won a Jeff Award for his performance in 1983, when the Body Politic did the play, and reviews of other productions almost always have kind words for the actor who plays Tristram.

However, one clever visual joke and one good role are not enough to make a farce superior, and Taking Steps is a weaker effort by Alan Ayckbourn, considered to be the British Neil Simon. But these two attributes, coupled with farcical devices (though standard), which Ayckbourn clearly has mastered, are more than enough to provide a few laughs, so if the Touchstone Theatre's production of this play seems flat, the fault must lie with the production.

Before Pauline Brailsford directed Ayckbourn's Confusions at the Body Politic several years ago, she consulted with the playwright. "Cast good actors who won't try to be funny," he told her. "My plays are funny enough."

That's good advice, for the humor in Ayckbourn's farces is embedded mostly in the characters, not the situations. Tristram, for example, is funny because he's inept at small talk and hopelessly meek, not because he trips over the footstool or because of what happens when he ends up in bed with a "ghost," Same with the other characters--they're funny because they're victims of their all-too-human quirks. The actors must be able to get inside the characters and understand those quirks; if they succeed, they will simultaneously tap into the humor buried within the play, and bring it to the surface for the audience to see. If they don't--and no one in the Touchstone production except Sean Baldwin, who plays Tristram, does--then the humor remains trapped, and the play begins to look silly and pointless.

The play is about Roland, a successful manufacturer of tin buckets, who has decided to buy the run-down house he has been renting with his wife Elizabeth. But Elizabeth, as she never tires of telling people, is a dancer, and she's about to leave Roland to pursue her career. (What she carefully avoids telling people is that her specialty is burlesque, not ballet--Roland met her while she was performing in the chorus line of a television commercial for his bucket company.)

Anyway, while packing a suitcase in her second-floor bedroom, she divulges her plans to her brother Mark, a man so bland he puts people to sleep when he talks. Roland returns home, followed by Tristram, the solicitor who is going to go over the purchase agreement and presumably offer advice on whether or not Roland should buy the house. But Tristram is a dithering incompetent eager to agree with anything Roland says. "I've made a great deal of money," Roland tells Tristram. "If you want to put it in those terms, I'm a successful man . . . and very successful men, let's be truthful about this, very successful men should live in very big houses." To this preposterous logic Tristram replies "Oh yes."

Leslie, the owner of the house, shows up to make a sales pitch, and while they are taking a tour, Mark returns from the train station, having picked up his girlfriend Kitty, who dresses so tastelessly that she was recently arrested on suspicion of soliciting.

When all the characters have converged on the house, the stage is set for full-blown farce, and Ayckbourn begins to exploit the possibilities. Roland becomes hopelessly drunk when he discovers that his wife has left him. He asks Tristram to spend the night to keep him company, and the young man agrees, even though Roland has warned him about Scarlet Lucy, the ghost of a prostitute killed in the house. "If she takes a fancy to you, she might even climb into bed with you," according to Roland. "But if she does, you'll be dead by morning."

And so on and so on. Much of this is very amusing, but the cast members don't seem to understand their characters. They try to be funny, and as Ayckbourn predicted, this drains the play of its humor.

N. Marion Polus, for example, exaggerates Roland's typically British "cheerio" exuberance without projecting the insecurity that lies just below his pompous, blustery exterior. Adrianne Cury does a wonderfully clumsy dance routine that contradicts Elizabeth's claims to being a great dancer, but she doesn't create the type of self-absorbed personality that would display such artistic pretensions.

Jeffrey Swan Jones is appropriately bland as the sleep-inducing Mark, but his characterization isn't interestingly bland. Same with Kimberley Fitzwater as Mark's girlfriend Kitty. Although she cries a lot, she fails to suggest the source of Kitty's despondency, making her character the most inscrutable of the bunch.

Director Ina Marlowe has cast a woman in the role of Leslie, the leather-clad motorcycle enthusiast who owns the house. That alone adds some interest to the role, but Melinda Moonahan fails to establish Leslie as the devious double-dealer that he--or in this case, she--really is.

Only Sean Baldwin, as Tristram, gives a consistently satisfying performance. His staccato delivery, coupled with his guileless facial expression, signals a type of anxiety felt by everyone at times.

As artistic director, Marlowe consistently picks challenging plays for the Touchstone Theatre, but they are apparently too challenging. Taking Steps, like other Touchstone productions have been, is bedeviled by little problems such as actors who flub lines and a set full of doors that don't stay closed when slammed (a real problem in a farce). On opening night, the second act began before two of the actors were in place onstage, which contributed to the amateurish tone of the production. Marlowe has the ability to coax people into deep water and keep them afloat, but she can't yet turn them into graceful swimmers.

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