'Revengers' Comedies' is far too long for mere spoof

April 19, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Before the start of each part of Alan Ayckbourn's two-play "The Revengers' Comedies" at Washington's Arena Stage, a small lighted bridge spans the stage, mounted above a fog of dry ice on which tiny ships pass in the night. The effect, created by set designer Thomas Lynch and lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes, is one of the few elements of "The Revengers' Comedies" that can be described as "small."

The two plays, which can be seen on consecutive nights or in same-day marathons, run almost six hours long and include two dozen characters. It's a gargantuan effort in service of a comic spoof of murder mysteries. Specifically, it's the prolific British playwright's salute to 17th century revenge dramas (the title is a takeoff on the Jacobean "Revenger's Tragedy") combined with his acknowledged homage to Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train."

The result is an amusing amalgam, and director Douglas C. Wager has given it a suitably amusing production. But amusement seems a small payoff for such a large investment on the part of the audience as well as the theater.

Furthermore, for such a lengthy undertaking, the plot is surprisingly simple. Two would-be suicide victims meet on a bridge. Instead of jumping, they save each other's lives and decide to trade enemies, becoming the instruments of each other's revenge.

AIn wealthy, loony Karen Knightly and reticent, middle-class Henry Bell, Ayckbourn has created two strikingly dissimilar co-conspirators, and their dissimilarities are emphasized by the performances of Ellen Karas and Ralph Cosham. Karas' Karen is initially so hysterical that not only are some of her lines unintelligible, but it's difficult to imagine why Henry agrees to her scheme -- which calls for him to do away with Karen's lover's wife, and for her to do the same to the man who stole Henry's job.

Perhaps Henry goes along with it because, as played by Cosham, he's so calm he's almost in a daze. Only when he finds himself falling in love with the wife, empathetically played by Tana Hicken, does Henry begin to question the pact he's made.

0$ It should also be said that over

wrought as Karas' Karen is at the beginning, her transformation into a calculating businesswoman, working her way up the corporate ladder in Henry's former firm, is the production's most fascinating performance.

Almost all of the cast members excel at combining the sensibilities

of comedy and murder mysteries, but standouts include Rainn Wilson as Karen's sweet twit of a brother and June Hansen as their dour housekeeper.

A word of praise also goes to sound designer David E. Smithwho makes the flapping wings of a bird trapped indoors sound so convincing you want to cover your head.

"The Revengers' Comedies" is not the only mega-play to make its way to the East Coast of late. The Kennedy Center presented a pre-Broadway run of the six-hour "Kentucky Cycle" last fall, and the seven-hour "Angels in America" is a Broadway sensation. But while "Angels" explores AIDS, politics and Mormonism, and "Cycle" encompasses two centuries of American history, the agenda of "The Revengers' Comedies" is less lofty.

Granted, Ayckbourn puts grand passions on stage -- jealousy, lust, love and, of course, revenge. But these comedies seem more intent on providing entertainment than on probing thematic depths.

At the final curtain, a fellow theatergoer told me she thought the show would make a good movie. "Don't you think it would be a little long?" I asked. "Well," she answered, "they'd have to cut it a bit." Then again, if "The Revengers' Comedies" were divided into shorter segments, it could be a highly enjoyable TV miniseries.

As a theatrical experience, however, it wears a bit thin.

"Revengers' Comedies"

Where: Arena Stage, 6th and Maine Ave., S.W., Washington

When: Parts 1 and 2 are performed in repertory at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; and at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; with selected matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through June 12

Tickets: $20-$39 (each part)

Call: (202) 488-3300

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