Alas, Poor Fred and A Slight Accident. Written by James Saunders and directed by Ed Giron. At Center Stage Theater, Friday, September 8.
Reviewed by Charles Donelan
These two short plays were written by the little-known British absurdist James Saunders. Saunders began his career writing for the radio, and his stage plays retain the emphasis on contentious conversation so characteristic of classic radio comedy. Although there were laughs to be had, neither piece could accurately be described as pure comedy. No matter how sparkling and witty the ripostes became, the undertones were dark and the conflicts were real. Due to his pervasive influence on Tom Stoppard, among others, Saunders, whose work dates from the 1960s, offers contemporary audiences an easily recognizable manner that conceals an unexpected punch.
The first piece, A Slight Accident, opens with a gunshot. Penelope (Barbara Tzur) has just shot her husband, Harry (Thomas Hurd). Although the gambit at first reads as a deliberate affront to theatrical conventions — the proverbial “gun in the first act” isn’t ordinarily supposed to go off until at least the second — the plot situation soon becomes recognizably similar to that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which the action takes place mostly after the murder of the king. In this case, Penelope plays both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, angrily justifying her crime while at the same time blithely denying it. Marion Freitag, as a television-obsessed downstairs neighbor, and David Brainard, as her annoyingly self-confident husband, handled the complex demands of this timing-intensive piece admirably.
The night’s most impressive performances came in the second piece, Alas, Poor Fred, with real-life married couple Marilyn Gilbert and Nathan Rundlett taking on the portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Pringle, an older English couple seeking answers to an apparent riddle — what has happened to their mutual friend Fred? Fred has been cut in half, and all the arguing and reminiscing and red herring chasing that Mr. and Mrs. Pringle do can’t put him back together again, either in reality or in their own minds. Nathan Rundlett plays Earnest Pringle with a kind of Wallace (from Wallace and Gromit)-like amiability and nearsightedness. As Ethel Pringle, Marilyn Gilbert is by turns puckish and withering, saving her choicest remarks for when her husband is out of earshot, either trying to walk one of their (dead) pets or just fast asleep in his chair.
The influence of Saunders’ work on everything from Monty Python to Absolutely Fabulous is most evident here, yet there is also a melancholy that links the fun with the sleepless despair of Samuel Beckett. Ed Giron and company are to be congratulated for bringing such fresh and relevant fare to Santa Barbara and for such a good cause.