It's easy to see why T. Schreiber Studio chose to close their 2009-2010 season with Joking Apart. Not only was playwright Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests a pretty hot recent Broadway ticket, but this particular play's four scenes span sixteen years: good experience for the ever-learning actor. And yet, for the same reasons, it's not hard to see why this play may not be a good experience for the avid theatergoer. It's a decidedly British play of manners, and the more it shows how to kill with kindness, the more stolid it grows.
Joking Apart is an exercise in frustration, a play spent watching how poorly "life's losers" cope with the smothering--and thoughtlessly demeaning--charity of the blessedly healthy and wealthy Richard (Michael Murray) and Anthea (Aleksandra Stattin). The scenes are stagnant, and each emphasizes the same thing: life's gotten worse for the no-longer-newlywed vicar Hugh (Michael J. Connolly) and his high-strung wife, Louise (Alison Blair); life's been drained from Richard's married businesspartners Olive (Stephanie Steward) and Sven (James Liebman); and life's passed by the pencil-pushing man of inaction, Brian (Sebastian Montoya). It's a Pyrrhic play, one that makes its points by being so listless, and Sven's description of a tennis court applies too well to the play itself: "It's too slow. It makes it difficult to play a natural game."
Playing that game, director Peter Jensen is often caught off-sides trying to compromise the dramatic need for action with the general lack of it onstage. Ironically, when he's actually given the opportunity for it--as with a few half-obscured tennis matches, or with the various incarnations of Brian's "Girlfriend" (three women, all played by Anisa Dëma)--it tends to look exaggeratedly fake. This stands out even more in contrast to Matt Brogan's impeccable set design and to Eric Cope's lighting, which--particularly during a fireworks sequence--casts just the right shade of gloom on that garden.
In fact, these effects are often more natural than the actors, who are more demonstrative of the play's theme than they are ordinary people caught within it. Murray, who need only behave splendidly, does a fine job, as does the sniping Liebman, who is somehow able to politely do the opposite, and Seward, who nicely balances him. Blair, the star of the show (in my book), at least foreshadows the consequences of living in the shadow of such bright people, and never overplays her nervous struggle to assert herself. Not so with Montoya, who only seethes when he's given lines that explicitly do so, and otherwise seems nonchalantly disconnected from the show. Not so with Connolly, either: his character abruptly confesses his love for Anthea, and never does so again. As for Stattin, she oversimplifies her character by so easily brushing off such oaths and simply rising above it.
Everyone loves a perky attitude, but not if that's all there is, and that's this production's biggest flaw: too much has been given to the physical changes (posture, hair color, wardrobe); the mental changes are largely ignored. Joking Apart is a tough play, in which much happens in the four years between each scene and so little happens within each. Both the actors and director seem ill-prepared, and having failed to fill in the blanks, is it any surprise that they come across so blankly on stage?