Venue: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, Costa Mesa, Calif. (through June 15).
South Coast Repertory returns to one of its favorites, English playwright Alan Ayckbourn, for its season finale. A bedroom farce, “Taking Steps” was written in 1979, when parodying the middle-class take on the decade’s cultural and sexual proclivities was very much in style. The romp that takes place for more than two hours involves a Victorian house haunted by a whore, two women fighting for their freedom and four men seeking all types of satisfaction.
Under Art Manke’s methodical direction, the cast plods up and down imaginary stairs, appears in various stages of dress and undress and waits until the last possible second to unleash a concluding series of comic misadventures that almost makes the evening worthwhile.
Unfortunately, the cast and crew also decide to adopt painfully artificial English accents that take most of Act 1 to get used to. Of course, it’s no secret that some of theater’s greatest actors — from Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine to Charlton Heston and Orson Welles — have been unable to convincingly sound like their transatlantic counterparts, so it might be unreasonable to expect anything better from an enthusiastic cast like the one assembled for this production.
The evening is highlighted by a brilliant comic performance from Kasey Mahaffy, as if the dormouse from “Alice in Wonderland” had been bred to the stammering manner of Edward Everett Horton. Mahaffy, topped by a dazzling shock of red hair, plays a neophyte lawyer who wanders into the firing lines of two batty, mismatched couples.
Rob Nagle’s obtuse businessman of a husband wants to redecorate a crumbling ruin for his wife (Kirsten Potter), who thinks she would really rather be a dancer. Bill Brochtrup’s soporific hanger-on wants to sweep his unwilling hippie fiancee (Emily Eiden) off her feet. And an endearingly accommodating pipsqueak of a contractor (Louis Lotorto) keeps trying to provide a small measure of sanity.
The two women are quite good. Potter is intermittently adorable as the wife who keeps trying to escape the clutches of her overbearing husband, though Manke should have allowed her to do more with the Victorian slut she is called on to play than merely crawling hungrily under the covers — perhaps by wearing something more than merely symbolically suggestive of sluttiness than a modest red wrap.
Despite her much more minor role, Eiden nearly steals the show with her gawky body language, confused Diane Keaton mannerisms and high-pitched voice.
Even in an ideal performance, “Steps” might be more of Ayckbourn — it’s the ninth Ayckbourn play produced at South Coast Rep — than Costa Mesa really needs, though there’s no doubt that the fun and games involving eccentric, boorish men and their eccentric, sexually restless women could have been better served.
Cast: Bill Brochtrup, Kirsten Potter, Rob Nagle, Kasey Mahaffy, Louis Lotorto, Emily Eiden. Playwright: Alan Ayckbourn; Director: Art Manke. Set designer: Ralph Funicello; Costume designer: Angela Balogh Calin. Sound-music: Steven Cahill.