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Ayckbourn's Taking Steps only entertains, and no more

TAKING STEPS

Written by Alan Ayckbourn.

Directed by Polly Hogan.

Starring Sheila Ferrini, Jeremiah Kissel, James L. Walker, Ron Ritchell, Peter

Snoad, and Marguerite Rigoglioso.

At the Lyric Stage, April 18 to May 27.

By DAVID HOGG

and ROBIN KULLBERG

TAKING STEPS takes place in a Victorian manor that is badly in need of renovation. The play starts with Elizabeth (Sheila Ferrini) and her brother Mark (Jeremiah Kissel) talking in Elizabeth's bedroom. Elizabeth, an aspiring dancer, is about to leave her husband.

While they are trying to coordinate her escape, however, a solicitor named Tristram (James L. Walker) arrives to represent Elizabeth's husband, Roland (Ron Ritchell), in the purchase of the house from their landlord, Leslie (Peter Snoad). Between Mark boarding his ex-girlfriend (Marguerite Rigoglioso) in the house, Roland's early return home from work, and each character's complete misapprehension of all the others' comings and goings, the production quickly becomes a frantic comedy in the spirit of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors.

Much of the humor of Taking Steps relies on its meticulous choreography. Although the action takes place on three floors of the house, a single one-level set is used for the entire performance. Parts of the floor are "steps," on which the actors mime climbing and descending to reach the various "rooms" of the manor.

So, while the audience can see all the action in the house simultaneously, each character is unaware of the actions of others who are ostensibly on other floors. At one point Tristram, thinking that the house is empty, hears the footsteps of Elizabeth overhead. Believing that they belong to the ghost of a murdered prostitute, he looks up and follows the footsteps across the ceiling in terror as Elizabeth crosses the other side of the stage.

Unfortunately, the sight gags and general confusion alone are not enough to save us from the relentless string of recurring, or at least clich'ed, slapstick. Much of the action is designed to titillate the theater's sexually-repressed and largely middle-aged audiences. For example, when Elizabeth thinks that the leather-clad Leslie is trying to rape her, she throws him to the ground and clamps his head between her thighs. Fortunately for The Lyric Stage, the audience came with expectations no greater than those with which they watch episodes of Family Ties.

To be fair, the actors delivered many humorous lines, and we were often laughing. However, the comedy made the common error of reserving its "point" -- the futility of mankind's search for freedom -- for its few somber moments. This would not be such a grave problem if this sincerity was not completely hackneyed. The play says nothing new, and in no interesting or original way.

Taking Steps is strongly reminiscent of a television sitcom. It is funny at times, but it seems to hold the opinion that humor cannot be used to convey a serious theme or idea. The play is designed for an audience that wants to be entertained, but no more. Rather than pay $15 to see Taking Steps, our readers would be well advised to watch a few hours of prime-time television any weeknight: They may lose the experience of live performance by a competent company, but they will get all the humor and just as much insight.