Theater has many plays where there are two completely different apartments depicted on the stage, usually split down the middle, one on the right, one on the left.
But the inventive, award-winning English playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s sophisticated 1969 farce, How the Other Half Loves, puts a whole new twist on the concept, mingling two apartments across the entire stage. One, with plush furniture and artwork, is for the wealthy Fiona and Frank Foster (Heather Clark and Bob Marcela); the other, with worn bentwood rocker and tacky, throw-covered chair, houses one of Frank’s employees, the working class Teresa and Bob Phillips (Blake Parker and Mike Worssell). The furniture pieces are side by side, but each couple uses only those that are part of their own apartment.
The two couples carry on their lives within touching distance, completely unaware of each other, their conversations dovetailing and exposing the hypocrisy of Fiona and Bob, who are having an affair, and the naivety of Frank, who believes Fiona’s painfully transparent fibs.
Bringing this all to a head are the completely innocent, faithful William and Mary Detweiler (David Daly and Christine Stoll), who are accused of being partners in adultery by the guilty parties in order to throw their own spouses off the scent.
It’s a tricky, difficult scenario to bring off — especially when the Detweilers are invited to dinner at the Fosters and the Phillipses on successive nights, and Ayckbourn shows the dinner parties simultaneously — and director/stage manager Jess Glass’s adroit cast members do this incredibly challenging scene with only a few, hardly noticeable slip-ups and hesitations.
Indeed, the success of the play depends on perfect timing and the physical and facial expressions of the characters, and these six players do a phenomenal job of that, with some help from the uncredited costume designer that signals social class at first sight.
Clark’s Fiona Foster and Marcela’s Frank Foster both dress upscale and carry themselves with the cool air of people accustomed to wealth and deference. Frank expects to be listened to; Fiona expects to get anything she wants, including a string of men, all without consequence.
Parker’s Teresa, by contrast, wears a slovenly bathrobe, shouts like a fishwife, but is clever and has a keen eye for duplicity. Worssell’s Bob is an adorable rogue, perhaps made even more charming by his genuine English accent, but physically and verbally abusive of his wife, while fooling around with the boss’s wife, Fiona.
Perhaps the biggest acting challenge goes to the Detweilers, who have to change demeanor and character in a split second when they are shown at two different dinner tables at the same time, but on successive nights. First, they make polite conversation with the Fosters at Thursday night’s dinner at a luxurious gold satin-covered table, then they swivel in place to a threadbare flowered cotton tablecloth at the Phillipses, where they become referees for the fighting Bob and Teresa during their Friday night dinner.
Amazingly, Daly and Stoll bring this entire scenario off without a hitch, changing their personalities in the blink of an eye.
Watching six actors carrying on three different conversations at the same time and keeping everything perfectly understandable is a like watching a three-tiered pyramid of tightrope walkers dance overhead. And these guys do it the confidence of high-wire artists.
The title, How the Other Half Loves, implies different mores among social classes. But, in the end, it’s all the same adultery, lying, blaming and covering up, no matter how rich or how poor the couples might be.