By Daniel Okrent
Updated March 02, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

In one theater, a group of actors puts on a domestic comedy in a lovely English manor house. A few dozen yards away, another theater hosts a loopy farce about infidelity, bad parenting, and other nice habits, all played out in a slightly forlorn garden. In fact, the second theater contains the garden behind the manor house. And those people gamboling in the greenery are the same actors, playing the same roles they portray in the house. And it’s all happening simultaneously. But in a different play.

Now that we’ve settled that, here are the particulars: Alan Ayckbourn, the English playwright whose comic low regard for the Englishness of the English has kept him busy (and audiences delighted) with nearly 60 plays over the past 42 years, has topped himself with an act of unprecedented theatrical invention. House takes place in a house, Garden in the house’s garden. When the actors aren’t on one stage performing House, they’re down the hall on another doing Garden. The characters are identical, the circumstances inverted. Each play contains the back story for the other. Imagine an audience watching Hamlet mope through a soliloquy while an audience nearby is watching Claudius put the moves on Gertrude. Except imagine it being a lot funnier.

And imagine, as well, all this splendidly staged by Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in its exceptionally handsome new home, an up-to-date theatrical complex hidden behind a neoclassical facade in the heart of the Loop. All of Ayckbourn’s plays — the best known are Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests — call for actors and directors who understand the serious nature of farce. (And indeed, Goodman artistic director Robert Falls and his company conduct matters expertly.) But House and Garden, which are having their American premiere here, demand a further requirement: a theater with cheek-to-cheek auditoriums, so that the actors rapidly exiting one stage and instantly popping up on the other don’t get winded in transit.

Ayckbourn isn’t above using obvious devices to make the timing work. Chief among them is a dipsomaniacal French starlet conveniently on the loose in both plays; whenever action in one venue needs to slow down to allow the other to catch up, Lucille rants in French just long enough for the other play to pull even. But taking Ayckbourn to task for such obvious stagecraft would be like criticizing Tom Hanks because he can’t sing.

Same with the plays themselves. Garden has the belly laughs of good farce, yet it’s hardly consequential; House, on its own, is decidedly lesser Ayckbourn. But seen one after the other, these two plays become a third one that, for sheer audacious originality, is practically beyond criticism. Salute the playwright for conceiving it, salute the Goodman for producing it, and salute the unsung hero, production stage manager Joseph Drummond. Without his deft maneuverings, House and Garden would resemble the XFL without referees. Give this man a hand. And when he gets home, a stiff drink. (312-443-3800; run ends March 4) House: B- Garden: B+ House and Garden: A

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House and Garden GOODMAN THEATRE

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