The cast of "How the Other Half Loves" at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Photo by Aaron Rumley
Very much a product of its time and place, the swingin’ England of 1969, Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy “How the Other Half Loves” skirts the edges of issues such as sexual politics and distinctions between the classes. But its principal observation is this: Adultery is not only a response to the era’s sexual freedom but, if deftly indulged in and concealed, sophisticated enough to transcend class differences. A casual affair can be bloody good fun for all … well, perhaps not for the cuckolded spouses, but there can be bloody good fun in forgiveness, too.
As such, “How the Other Half Loves,” onstage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, feels dated, especially when today’s headlines suggest that blithely engaged in infidelity is no laughing matter. But uneasy as its premise may be, the play’s comic antics are frequently on the mark. That’s an achievement indeed for a production two and a half hours in length.
Upper-class Frank Foster (James Newcomb, a manifestation of old-guard British sputter) has no clue that his flamboyant wife Fiona (Jacquelyn Ritz) is carrying on with one of Foster’s employees. That would be Bob Phillips (Christopher M. Williams), a bit of a boor who shares an untidy and antagonistic household with wife Teresa (Sharon Rietkerk, razor sharp), who has nearly stopped giving a damn. Their unseen baby is an appendage, practically a bother.
When faced with having to alibi to their spouses, Fiona and Bob, unbeknown to each other, involve a young couple, William and Mary Featherstone (Benjamin Cole and Noelle Marion). The Featherstones are as unhip as unhip can be. Fiona claims to have been out late consoling a cheated-on Mary, and Bob a cheated-on William. The visual payoff comes in “How the Other Half Love’s” cleverest and most inventive sequence: a dinner party at which the Fosters host the Featherstones, and a dinner party the next evening at which the Phillipses host the Featherstones. The two dinners are staged simultaneously, at one table, with the characters in one scenario oblivious to those in another, and the Featherstones fast and furiously switching from one moment in time to the other.
The ingenuity of two separate narratives unfolding at the same time on one set (designed by Marty Burnett) is the attraction of “How the Other Half Loves” and what elevates it above a retro episode of TV’s “Love, American Style” (make that “Love, British Style”). The focused cast directed by Geoffrey Sherman brings this off illusion seamlessly.
Inevitable misunderstandings and a dollop of slapstick arrive in the play’s second act. The good news is that doddering Frank and meek little Mary come to life when needed most. The scene-stealer in North Coast Rep’s “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers” last fall, Noelle Marion is terrific here, too, in a polar-opposite part.
“How the Other Half Loves” is heavy on Beatles tunes and is oh-so-‘60s in its sensibilities, but its hard-working ensemble is fab. (Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 4/17/18).
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.