On Saturday, I saw the New York premiere of Alphabetical Order by Michael Frayn at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row. It was a very well-acted farce with some interesting ideas, but not up to the level of Michael Frayn’s dramas.
A disclaimer: I am a Michael Frayn fan. I think he is a thoughtful and deep thinker, an elegant writer, and a talented playwright. I thoroughly enjoyed both of his best-known dramas, Copenhagen and Democracy, when I saw them several years ago. I am currently in the midst of reading his philosophical tome, The Human Touch, and I find it provocative and challenging. But – and here comes the disclaimer – I really don’t much like his comedies. I think that he has a great talent for drama, but not so much for farce. So notwithstanding the general critical acclaim it received at the time and its successful Broadway run, I didn’t enjoy Noises Off when first I saw it many years ago. And I similarly wasn’t very impressed by this revival of Alphabetical Order either, despite the fact that it expressed some interesting ideas and was very well directed and acted.
Alphabetical Order was written and takes place in the 1970s and, as a consequence, is somewhat dated. All of the action takes place in the library of a provincial newspaper’s library and much of the action centers around the process of clipping out newspaper articles - a process rendered obsolete in this digital age. The library is a mess and Lesley (Audrey Lynn Weston), a new 25 year old assistant librarian is brought on board to bring order out of chaos. In that she succeeds admirably, beyond anyone’s highest hopes – but has something even more valuable been lost in the process?
In the first act, we meet not only Lesley but all of the play’s other characters: Lucy (Angela Reed), the paper’s head librarian; Geoffrey (John Windsor-Cunningham) the paper’s soon to be retired messenger who doubles as something of a narrator or Greek chorus; and Arnold (Brad Bellamy), John (William Connell), Nora (Margaret Daly) and Wally (Paul Molnar), all of whom are writers, journalists or editors at the paper. And what we come to suspect is that how they all view themselves is not really how they are at all.
In the second act, we witness the occurrence of a major crisis at the newspaper and minor crises in the lives of several of the characters. The dramatic and comedic aspects of their reactions and interactions to these crises are what then give meaning and value to the play.
The entire cast deserves kudos for their performances as does the director, Carl Forsman, and the scenic designer, Nathan Heverin. If, unlike me, you enjoyed Noises Off, you’ll likely enjoy this play too. But if you’re expecting another Copenhagen or Democracy, you may be disappointed.
This tension between order and chaos certainly is a major theme of this play and it is the one that most reviewers have focused on in the past. But there are other conflicts which I think are as important, or even more important, that have received shorter shrift from the critics: that between form and substance, for instance, and that between appearance and reality.