THAT DARK place in the human heart where love and hostility meet has been mined for its tragic consequences by playwrights from Sophocles to Williams.
But not Alan Ayckbourn. The British playwright has found in this cruel love/hate paradox a bountiful source of a kind of comedy that, riotous as it is, manages to create delightful funny/miserable characters who will linger in memory long after the laughter dies.
So it is with "Things We Do for Love," Studio Arena's season opener. It is a finely constructed play, filled with brilliant comic dialogue spread among four very sympathetic, if absurd, characters.
And this production, an American premiere, does Ayckbourn's play proud. Gavin Cameron-Webb's direction is finely tuned to comic nuance throughout. The rhythm is right, neatly corraling a number of unexpected surges of passion, love and, late in the play, some really wacky aggression with a rolling pin as weapon of choice.
The cast is near-flawless. Ayckbourn has created four characters who, in their utterly different ways, try to get a foothold on the treacherous cliffs of love. The four actors convey the various slips and slides with comic grace.
Nikki (Allison Briner) takes the simple route to love: She thinks she's on a stroll down lovers' lane when really she has just wandered into a fallen-rock zone. Nikki's old school chum, Barbara (Henny Russell), is not taking the trip at all. "Live alone or compromise," she tells Nikki.
Despite the warning, Nikki is about to marry Hamish (Julian Gamble), a friendly Scot who takes an instant dislike to Barbara, and she to him. Great comic moments come as Hamish tries to be mannerly in the face of Barbara's assaults -- her calling Hamish's vegetarianism "an affectation," for instance. She says that animals are there to eat: "I mean, what earthly use is a cow except to eat? I mean, they just stand there, don't they? Devouring grass."
Gamble, with his sloping eyebrows and a voice that can fall into a pitiable whimper, is the perfect foil for the taut Russell and her amazing array of expressions. Briner creates a Nikki who is bouncy and airheaded without falling into caricature. And in Robin Chadwick's portrayal, Gilbert -- the weird Barbara-obsessed postal worker who lives in the basement -- is a marvelous jittery bundle of run-on sentences.
All the cast deserves praise, but Russell is nothing short of spectacular. Happily, her superb comic timing isn't determined merely by the raw comedic situation -- something I'm sure that Ayckbourn would be glad to see. Instead, she nails down what is a substantial character and pulls all responses out of her. True, there are moments of situation comedy-type humor -- e.g., Barbara swinging her hurt arm like a dead hamster -- but even then Russell never lets us forget that this ridiculous woman has real feelings.
The loving couple is staying at Barbara's upstairs apartment while waiting for their house to be finished. With Barbara's bitterness below and Gilbert's fantasies further down, it is an arrangement that will soon lead to disaster.
It is in the staging of this three-tier arrangement that the Studio falters a bit. Barbara's apartment is in full view, but for comic effect, Ayckbourn has the upstairs action seen from the knees down, which the set neatly accommodates. The compromise comes with Gilbert's place, intended to be shown as a thin slice of the upper part of the room. Here the action is in the orchestra pit and you miss a lot. (Because of other sounds -- including the audience's laughter -- you are also apt to miss the dirty lyrics that Nikki puts to her school song while in the tub.)
But never mind. It is a stellar production that not only renders Ayckbourn's great comic writing but makes these "social types" live and breathe. You will laugh and laugh. And then wonder -- were these people better off living the delusional life that each lived before love's avalanche hit?
Things We Do for Love
Alan Ayckbourn's comedy about four characters with conflicting ideas about love.
The American premiere, directed by Gavin Cameron-Webb and starring Henny Russell, above; Julian Gamble; Allison Briner, and Robin Chadwick.
Through Oct. 10 at Studio Arena Theater, 710 Main St. (856-5650).