Theaters seem like they are trying to outdo one another in their pre-show announcements admonishing audience members to turn off cell phones and get noisy candy unwrapped before the show starts. Top honors go to the Aurora, which includes Game Boys in its list of potential distractions. This admonition is totally appropriate in front of Michael Frayn's Alarms and Excursions, which begins with an irritating stray electronic chirp and ends with four lost souls trying to find each other through the offices of one overworked answering machine. In eight semi-related vignettes, hapless humans struggle with trouser presses, television remote controls, car alarms, automated phones, and hijacked TelePrompTers in Frayn's farcical vision of modern life gone awry.
This is Aurora's second crack at Frayn this season; the first was Benefactors, a straightforward narrative that followed two couples through the dissolution of a friendship, alienation, and questionable urban renewal. Other than the presence of two couples, however, Alarms is nothing like Benefactors. It's very silly, for one, helpless laughter-type silly. And Benefactors' curiosity about class struggle and good intentions also is largely absent. Alarms is like the sorbet served between the courses of a heavy meal -- it clears the palate and provides a bright, sweet taste while leaving nothing behind.
The four hapless humans are played by Lee Ann Manley, John Oswald, Adam Ludwig (the bomb-toting son from Berkeley Rep's recent House of Blue Leaves, especially nice here as a vulnerable German tourist), and Jennifer Wagner. The actors are game, although the vignettes often feel like extended drama-class exercises and do not allow for extended character development. Frayn has named the characters "Actor A" and "Actress B" and so on, giving them proper names when necessary; he's written the parts accordingly. A few characters stand out, such as Dietrich and the MP Lady Armament (she of the misbehaving TelePrompTer, a very funny bit), but mostly the characters are secondary to the predicaments in which they find themselves.
Some of the vignettes are more effective than others. The second, "Doubles," is the longest of the eight, and portrays two couples checking into identical back-to-back motel rooms in a nameless vacation spot. While we do see the internal lives of a couple of the characters more clearly than in any other segment, the total effect is like hearing a joke with the punch line embedded in the middle. The second-longest piece, "Immobiles," fares much better. It's painfully funny, showing a situation we've all been in taken to its logical extreme. Chris has gone to the airport to pick up our German tourist Dietrich, but can't find him, and, oh, Mummy's coming up this weekend as well. Heathrow, Gatwick, the vile Bag O' Nails pub, a police station, an infirmary, and four people trying to reach other tumble together in an escalating series of misunderstandings and missteps. "I hope this isn't going to turn into one of those sagas," grumbles John Oswald as Chris, and we know immediately that it is going to turn into the kind of saga that's funniest when it happens to someone else.
In "Leavings," which continues the story begun in the hilarious "Alarms," one man poses a question about human reliance on gadgets. A merry debate ensues that focuses more on "Who's on first" type wordplay than in providing any answers. The same can be said of much of Alarms; it's quick and lively and somewhat rueful, but the real questions it asks are lost in the ticking, clicking, buzzing, beeping hubbub. Which may be the point.
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