The biggest laugh in Olney Theatre's production of Alan Ayckbourn's "A Small Family Business" comes in the opening scene. The family of a British businessman named Jack McCracken is giving him a surprise party to celebrate his quitting his old job to run the family business.
While his large, extended family waits in the living room to surprise him, Jack arrives home with something altogether different in mind. Determined to make love to his wife, he has undressed down to his drawers and is babbling lasciviously when he chases her into the living room.
Though nothing in the rest of the evening matches the inspired beginning, this slickly staged comedy is more accessible and appealing than many other scripts by prolific Ayckbourn, who is wildly popular in his native Britain but a bit of an acquired taste here.
There are several explanations for why this show translates so well. For starters, in recent years, Ayckbourn's comedies have been getting darker and more substantial. In this case, Ayckbourn extends his usual indictment of cheating hearts into the corporate realm. And of course, the corporate realm -- be it "a small family business" or Drexel Burnham Lambert -- is something with which Americans are quite familiar.
Another reason the production works is John Going's direction, which keeps the nearly three-hour play zipping along. More impressively, he clearly delineates between scenes -- no small accomplishment in a show in which the scenery of a single domestic interior serves as four different households, sometimes two at the same time.
Most important, Going's cast respects the cardinal rule of farce: Play it as if your life depends on it. The most desperate character is Jack, who makes the shocking discovery that his family has been defrauding his father-in-law's firm for years. To point up the contrast between him and his corrupt relatives, Jack has to be portrayed as the most boring, ordinary one of the lot. John Neville-Andrews excels at this seemingly unenviable task. In fact, he's more convincing as a middle-class wimp than he is after undergoing an 11th-hour conversion.
As his wife, Brigid Cleary at first seems similarly ordinary, but there's something almost pathological about her cheerfulness; she's a Stepford Wife on uppers. She's subdued, however, compared with her two sisters-in-law -- a nymphomaniac, played with hilarious determination by Pamela Lewis, and a dog lover with an aversion to food, played by Rena Cherry Brown with nerves as tightly wound as her severe top-knot hairdo.
The funniest -- and creepiest -- role is the pivotal part of an outsider. Depicting a private investigator purportedly on the side of justice, Munson Hicks conveys such skin-crawling seediness, he makes Lewis' S&M-clad; nympho look wholesome by comparison.
But it is a relatively small role that epitomizes the bleakness at the play's core. From her vacant stare to her punk get-up, Laura Wells' portrayal of Jack's younger daughter typifies the dangers of sidestepping morality. In the end, it is this numb, lost character who makes "A Little Family Business" scarier than mere funny business.
What: "A Small Family Business"
Where: Olney Theatre, 2001 Route 108, Olney
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2:30 p.m. Sundays and July 23 and 2 p.m. July 28; through Aug. 7
Call: (301) 924-3400