Absurd Person Singular at Trinity Rep

There’s a good deal of booze and a total lack of bonhomie in Absurd Person Singular, a comedy by prolific English playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn that’s playing through Nov. 21 in the smaller, downstairs Dowling Theater at Providence’s Trinity Rep.
Ayckbourn, who’s written more than 70 plays, also penned Comic Potential, a highlight of last season at 2nd Story. 
But unlike that lesser-known science-fiction love story, this is classic Ayckbourn comedy-of-manners stuff. It contains three acts, each one taking us backstage, so to speak, into the kitchens of three couples who are reluctantly taking turns hosting successive annual Christmas parties in an unnamed English town.
Written and set in the 70s, and therefore thickly spackled with a brand of English classism that seems both heavy handed and slightly foreign to modern U.S. ears, the play follows the characters’ varying fortunes as the years roll by. And change they do; each couple – lower-middle-class strivers Jane and Sidney, upper-middle-class professionals Eva and Geoffrey, and complacently upper class Ronald and Marion – finds themselves each year in substantially different situations in the world and in their relationships to each other.
The first act opens on Jane and Sidney, who are nervously hosting a party in hopes of securing bank financing for their growing grocery store. It’s enlivened by farcical misunderstandings, a clever set, and naked class scorn, and as it goes in 1973, so it continues in 74 and 75 as the impervious Jane and Sidney continue their rise while their knowing yet ineffectual neighbors descend into ruin. 
The cast, skilled veterans all, turn in wonderful performances, right down to their English accents. Angela Brazil, Stephen Berenson, Timothy Crowe, Fred Sullivan Jr and, in particular, Phyllis Kay and Anne Scurria, never falter; it’s marvelous ensemble work that showcases impressive individual dramatic range. Each couple has real chemistry, the comic timing is spot on, and the production confidently winks at the tragedy waiting in the wings while determinedly highlighting the absurd. And yet – and yet, Absurd Person Singular doesn’t quite work. Perhaps it’s the slightly contrived set-pieces that made up the three acts, perhaps there’s something trite in the story arc, perhaps it’s that none of the characters seem to like each other. In the end, there’s something a little mean about Absurd Person Singular, and despite a consistently professional production and some inspired direction by Brian McEleney, it remains a dated look at a bunch of people whom no one, from the play’s characters to its audience, really wants to spend much time with.