Bedroom Farce's best joke may be its title.
The genre known as bedroom farce is associated with slamming doors and colliding bodies and all sorts of ooh-la-la, but prolific English playwright Alan Ayckbourn is engaging in mischievous misdirection in this case: Everything but sex happens in the three bedrooms he depicts on stage in his 1975 comedy.
Instead, Ayckbourn gives us an older couple eating pilchards on toast in bed; a self-pitying husband laid up with a bad back, ceaselessly complaining to his wife; and a husband building a chest of drawers instead of getting into his wife's in the third.
It all adds up to a minor study of sexually frustrated British women and the men who neglect them due to anxiety or indifference. No sex, please, we're skittish.
If that doesn't sound very funny, it's not – at least, it isn't in most of director Ted Dykstra's jagged production at Soulpepper.
Each of the three main couples in the play have their marital beds invaded by one or both members of a mercurial fourth: Trevor (Ron Pederson), the most oblivious man on Earth, and Susannah (Amy Matysio), a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, or perhaps past it.
On stage left, Trevor's parents – winningly incarnated by Corrine Koslo and Derek Boyes – have their anniversary disrupted by a teary and somewhat spooky middle-of-the-night visit from Susannah. This part works: Koslo, taking a break from the Shaw Festival, gives a master class in comedy of middle-class manners, generating laughs whether she's simply putting on her makeup oh-so-fastidiously following the instructions in a magazine, or attempting to repress her delight that her son's marriage is on the rocks.
In the centre, we have Kate (a charming Katherine Gauthier) and Malcolm (Gordon Hecht) – a giggling couple who throw a party that is ruined by Trevor and Susannah's antics and end up having a sexless, sleepless night.
Lastly, on stage right, we find the ailing businessman Nick (Alex McCooeye), whose convalescence is interrupted by Trevor's arrival in the middle of the night to apologize for having kissed Nick's wife, Jan (Caitlin Driscoll).
It's nice to see an infusion of new blood at Soulpepper in this production: Four of the young actors are making their debuts with the civic theatre company here, while two others have come up through the Soulpepper Academy. (Given that Bedroom Farce has even had colour-blind productions in Leeds at this point, however, it's disappointing to see a Toronto production so entirely lily-white.)
McCooeye pulls out his inner John Cleese to execute excellent physical comedy, while Driscoll is reliably droll in her interactions with the dull-witted men around her. As Trevor, however, Pederson is saddled with a sketch-comedy wig that makes him look like he's wandered in from This is Spinal Tap (if only). Erika Connor's 1970s costumes are shagadelic kitsch, making it difficult for real beings to emerge from under the mullets and bell-bottoms, Pederson's automaton being only the most extreme example.
As for Matysio's Susannah, her portrait of a severely insecure woman in what seems to be a borderline abusive relationship does have a kernel of truth at its centre; there's just nothing remotely funny about her situation and Ayckbourn seems to have written her for laughs. The 1970s seem really far away here – and somehow Acykbourn writing about sex seems more repressed than that in British comedies from before the sexual revolution.
The primary problem isn't any of the individual performances, though, but Dykstra's inability to pull them into a cohesive comedic whole on Ken MacKenzie's cluttered set. Too bad, since he did a cracking job with The Norman Conquests at Soulpepper – a trio of plays that take place over the same weekend in different rooms of the same house.
In interviews, Ayckbourn has said that he came up with the idea for Bedroom Farce as a follow-up to The Norman Conquests after a fellow came up to him in a bar and asked: "We've seen the sitting room, the dining room and the garden. When are we going to see the bedroom?" I think he dodged the challenge, really.
Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck