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Stage Review: 'Henceforward' to the past

Sci-fi comedy has a retro-futuristic charm

Friday, July 21, 2000

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

Yesterday's futuristic shocker can be today's ho-hum, partly because we fixate on the small details the prophet got wrong. But what about the big issues he gets right?


Where: PICT at City Theatre, Bingham and 13th, South Side.

When: Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m., through July 29.

Tickets: $14-$18; 412-394-3353.


Alan Ayckbourn's "Henceforward," a comedy set in the near-future, premiered in England in 1988. In a very capable staging by Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, it makes its long overdue arrival in Pittsburgh only now, when it might be expected to verge on obsolescent.

After all, Ayckbourn's plot concerns an electronic composer living in a society where order has broken down, with London neighborhoods run by competing gangs. Holed up in his electronic bunker, he gets companionship from robots as he schemes to recapture the teenage daughter his estranged wife won't let him see.

Robotics? Electronic wizardry? Oddball personal defense and communications devices? In just 12 years, reality has outstretched Ayckbourn's imagination in some ways, and in others his sci-fi still seems impossibly fi.

But Ayckbourn is a clever, fluent writer of comedies and farces with a long track record of also probing the human comedy for its darker seams. So on one level, his sci fi is mainly jokey trappings -- "Henceforward" is really another of Ayckbourn's farces about human self-deception and isolation. But the robots aren't just gimmicks, because they satirically epitomize questions about nature/nurture, male/female and parent/child, while also dramatizing the human fear of intimacy.

In other words, "Henceforward" is a complex and clever play, long overdue in Pittsburgh.

In Act 1, we meet solitary composer Jerome and his tattered Nan 300F, a robot with a built-in maternal bent. Enter Zoe, a driven young actress who survives the mean streets (controlled, in this area, by demonic feminists) to apply for a job as Jerome's fiancee -- the stage dressing he plans to use to persuade his wife and the child welfare officials to let him see his daughter. By Act 2, Jerome has come up with another plan, which plays out with unforeseen effect.

Beneath all the cleverness, "Henceforward" is really an English farce of mistaken identities, with a slow buildup to explosive complications. As such, it presents huge difficulties to its director, who has to find a rhythm that balances satire with sentiment and farce with pathos -- all while trying to coordinate some tricky special effects.

In all this, director Dan Kamin does not entirely succeed. The special effects are fine, starting with Steve O'Hearn's colorful mess of a set, which has just the right air of retro futuristic, sort of like Terry Gilliam's movie "Brazil." All the video and audio interventions also work well, aided by an invaluable crew and some CMU techno-geeks.

It's the rhythms that don't quite satisfy. At the simplest, this means Act 1, especially, is just too long, moving at too languid a pace. Then after a brisk start, Act 2 also slows down as Kamin forgets the snappy imperatives of farce to indulge the soup of sentiment.

This is partly an acting and writing problem. In a show with several wonderfully funny roles that are cast as well as they could be by any theater in Pittsburgh, the central figure is oddly slack. That's Ayckbourn's point, of course: Jerome is a misanthrope, a hermit by nature, and the comedy often requires him to stand idly by, oblivious, in order to let the robots and other humans mix it up to humorous effect.

But Ronald Siebert carries this disengagement to an extreme that looks like lethargy. His Jerome needs a sense of attack to push the play along toward its comic payoffs. Even though Jerome has an appealing, rumpled air that helps set up the surprisingly dark ending, there's just not enough going on along the way. When Jerome gets angry, the explosion apparently comes from nowhere. In the big Act 2 scene with his wife, he's still almost robotically disconnected. Where's the drive, the neediness?

As a result, Kamin doesn't fully harvest Ayckbourn's farce. The play only really gets going when Zoe enters, bringing manic energy to spare. Jessica Bates is a frantic joy, and if you think her comic intensity in Act 1 is close to over-the-top, you'll appreciate the precision of her Act 2 work even more -- though I won't give away Ayckbourn's joke by explaining that. Cary Anne Spear also excels in dual roles, graduating from her perfectly modulated Nan to the unhappy wife.

The play's funniest role is Mr. Bickerdyke, the welfare officer, and Joe Schulz takes to it like a castaway stumbling on a Club Med. His officious prissiness and befuddled pomposity are brilliant. Lydia Burns adds a nice cameo as the confused child and David Crawford is a hoot as a hapless friend seen only on video.

Kamin is certainly not wrong to care about the play's pathos. Ayckbourn makes much of human tendencies toward the robotic, and there are moments where a robot in repose suggests much about human despair. In spite of all the laughs and regardless of those times the laughs don't come as fast as they could, it is with images of human emptiness that "Henceforward" scores most persuasively.

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