The art direction of a play can vary from something spectacular and opulent to a bare stage, but it’s rare that the stage itself is one of the most fascinating parts of a production. In “How the Other Half Loves,” the Del Rey Players’ newest show currently on stage in the Del Rey Theatre, the set is not only crucial, but it keeps the pace lively and stages the characters against each other in a unique and fascinating fashion.
While the staging is fantastic, the show is more than just its set. Hilarious, lived-in performances and a sharp pace make this show an impressive feat and a thrill to experience. Director Joe Hospodor, a junior theatre arts major, has achieved a trifecta of able direction, great set design and universally strong performances to create a portrait of domestic life that doesn’t sacrifice the humanity of its characters in search for a laugh.
The setup is simple enough: Two couples in the early ‘70s occupy opposite sides of the wealth spectrum. Frank and Fiona Foster (freshman theatre arts major Ben Szymanski and sophomore theatre arts major Paulina Fricke) are comfortable; Bob and Teresa Phillips (senior theatre arts and political science double major Rechard Francois and sophomore theatre arts major Mackenzie Ward) are less than wealthy. The primary conflict comes from Fiona and Bob’s off-stage affair and the troubles in the Phillips’ marriage.
From that central point, countless misunderstandings and awkward confrontations spur the action, and a third couple, William and Mary Detweiler (sophomore theatre arts major Kent Jenkins and senior theatre arts major Ashley Donnert) are thrown into the fray to further complicate matters. The play itself, written by playwright Alan Ayckbourn, is cute, but hinges so much on the characterization and the actors’ timing to sell the comedy.
On that front, the cast delivers in droves. This sextet of performances deserves a place in the (sadly non-existent) LMU Theatre Arts Hall of Fame – truly, this is an ensemble without weak points. As the Phillips, Francois and Ward strike the perfect balance of hate/love chemistry. Ward’s drunk and angry wife could have easily become unlikable and ventured into ‘shrill harpy’ territory, but she stays hilarious and never lets you forget that she’s truly the victim in the messy web of relationships.
Jenkins and Donnert should be given the greatest of ovations for their pitch-perfect performances as the Detweilers. From first entrance to the crucial dinner scene, where they have to essentially act in two scenes at once, the pair is flawless. Jenkins has appeared in several productions during his two years at LMU, but no director before Hospodor has harnessed his lovable, dork energy anywhere near as effectively. Donnert steals every scene she’s in, playing Mary as a meek mouse who always seems to want a way out of the crisis.
Fricke and Szymanski have arguably the hardest task of any of the actors: The Fosters are by far the most detached of any of the couples despite their picture-perfect marriage. Fiona is a particularly difficult character to make human amidst her seeming disregard for her husband and icy interactions with Teresa. However, Fricke succeeds at making her more than an alpha bitch. Szymanski is pulling nothing less than Herculean duty in selling the comedy of his character. Almost everything he does physically and with his voice when delivering a joke slays his audience. He has a gift for comedy, something Hospodor was incredibly smart to notice.
From start to finish, the production just runs like a well-oiled machine. The staging, with both main rooms on one set, allows for giant portions of the show to flow uninterrupted and keep the energy high. The costume design is clever and period appropriate, with the color choices of particular note. The lighting, while simple, does its job – there are a few dramatic moments that heighten the suspense thanks to a smart change in color or intensity.
The show isn’t perfect: The quick dialogue sometimes causes the actors to trip over their words. But the show is hardly hindered by its small flaws. In fact, it seems all the more real.
“How the Other Half Loves” is not an epic with massive sets and a veritable truckload of cast members, but it doesn’t need to be. It accomplishes so much with six skilled performers and a stage that pushes the storytelling into a new realm. Hospodor directs every aspect of the performance to the brink of perfection and often manages to push it there. It is a truly appealing production and a joy to watch.
Four showings of “How the Other Half Loves” remain this Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. each night. Tickets can be bought through the Central Ticketing Agency.
This is the opinion of Kevin O’Keeffe, a sophomore screenwriting major from Austin, Texas. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
[UPDATED: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the remaining shows were this Friday through Sunday.]