Alan Ayckbourn is known for being incredibly prolific -- with nearly 80 plays to his name -- and for writing uproarious such comedies as "Absurd Person Singular" and "How the Other Half Loves."
The British hitmaker's 1997 play "Things We Do For Love" mixes bittersweet elements with laughs, and that's the draw for director John Tillinger.
"To put it bluntly, what I love in the theater is when you can make someone laugh just before they are punched below the belt. ... That's something I strive for," the director said of the Westport Country Playhouse production that runs through Sunday, Sept. 7.
It was Tillinger's ability to juggle comedy, drama and sex that made his productions of the plays of British maverick Joe Orton so popular in New York during the 1980s. The director and his actor collaborator, the late Joseph Maher, scored hits with three shows ("Entertaining Mr. Sloane," "Loot" and "What the Butler Saw") that had flopped on Broadway 20 years earlier.
"We had a devil of a time raising money for `Mr. Sloane.' They kept asking, `Why do a play about two people who share a boy?' Of course, that's what some people do and we had a big success," Tillinger said of the black comedy that ran for a year off-Broadway and led to the two subsequent Orton productions.
The director will be doing a new production of "What the Butler Saw" in Los Angeles after "Things We Do for Love" opens in Westport.
Tillinger doesn't believe that unrelenting tragedy is realistic -- there are laughs to be found even in dark plays, like Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
Besides, he added with a chuckle, "If you just play tragedy, you don't know if the audience is having a good time or if they're asleep."
"Things We Do For Love" follows a strait-laced woman named Barbara, living alone, whose life is thrown upside down during a visit from a longtime friend and her fiance. Ayckbourn includes a few sexually explicit moments that have led to the playhouse recommending the show for those 16 and up.
The British playwright has fooled with time and space in many of his plays. "How the Other Half Loves," which Tillinger directed at Westport, shows us the action in two different living rooms simultaneously. "Things We Do For Love" demands a tricky set that consists of the main character's apartment with bits of her upstairs and downstairs neighbors' flats being visible as well.
"The thing with Alan is that all of his plays have gimmicks -- he loves them -- but this is a valid gimmick," Tillinger said of the tantalizing glimpses we get of what is going on above and below Barbara's apartment.
"It's a very good play that ran in London's West End for a long time, with elements of farce (mixed) with a much more deep and sad feeling," he said.
Tillinger believes that Ayckbourn's prodigious output has worked against him in some critical quarters.
"He's written 77 plays, which diminishes him in the eyes of some critics. They ask, `How can he write 77 plays?' and there is an element of truth in that question. There are a couple where they didn't finally work, and I think he could have pulled them out of the fire with a bit more work. But he is always on to the next one, which can be a handicap with the critics."
At his considerble best, however, Tillinger believes that Ayckbourn consistently delivers "terrific evenings in the theater."