Separate Tables opened this weekend at the Hillbarn in Foster City to a warm and appreciative audience.
Understanding why Hillbarn’s handling of this script was so ambitious and novel requires a quick look at the history of this work. Separate Tables was written in 1955 by playwright Sir Terrance Rattigan (1911 – 1977) as two separate one act plays, Table by the Window and Table Number Seven, which opened in New York in 1956. These serious dramas were combined into a single piece which appeared as the 1958 movie, Separate Tables, starring Rita Hayworth, David Niven, Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster.
Hillbarn Director Hunt Burdick stood this piece on its head by heightening the action so that it played as over-the-top British humor instead of high drama. The extraordinary results make you think differently about the primacy of text and the director’s craft. Instead of an emotionally tense work that examines sexual repression in 1950’s, we have something that plays a lot more like Fawlty Towers. Swap out hotelier Basil Fawlty and waiter Manuel for proprietress Miss Cooper and waitress Doreen and you have this version of Separate Tables.
This production highlights the talents of Hillbarn’s new set designer, Gary Wong. For a small theatre with an idiosyncratically shaped stage, Hillbarn’s sets never cease to amaze. Often their complexity is right up there with that of TheatreWorks, further south on the Peninsula. The single set of Separate Tables, showing the dining and reception areas of the hotel Beauregarde, was warm and rich in detail. Since the script was played as over-the-top comedy, characters had little warmth – and the deep burgundy wallpaper balanced the their coldness.
The transition from drama to comedy was also evident in the costume designs by Mae Matos costume designs. For example, Sibyl Railton-Bell’s green plaid dress and orange ankle socks (just gotta love a girl who can pull that off) strained at every nerve – which was the point of the thing.
My one issue is this type of humor has limitations and it fails miserably when those limits are transgressed. Since the audience rarely cares about the characters, the humor becomes a technical craft that’s incredibly hard to pull off – especially in a longer piece. The half-hour British sitcom is a work of genius because it provides a natural end to a funny bit. Monty Python was so well received because it was a series of short bits with different characters. This type of humor doesn’t hold up for a longer drama like a two-act play. Act I left me fidgety. Act II was stronger, perhaps because it was more directed at wrapping up the drama. While my hat is off to Hillbarn for even thinking about pushing the drama over the edge into humor, it may be best reserved for true fans of this genre.
Hillbarn will be hosting a Season Surprise Night on April 4th during which their 71st season will be announced. This promises to be an interesting evening.
Hillbarn Theatre, Foster City
Directed by Hunt Burdick
Through March 27, 2011