If you’re smart enough and talented enough to boot, it doesn’t take that long to grow up. Constellation Theatre Company’s bright revival of Taking Steps by Alan Ayckbourn at Source in Washington, DC is a case in point. Tackling farce by one of London’s masters of the genre is no easy challenge to cut one’s teeth on, but this company, now in its sixth season, is up to the task.

Ayckbourn’s play is a thick and heady bouillabaisse, featuring six madcap Brits who unwittingly bed-hop from one end of this former Victorian brothel turned private residence to the other. The plot, like the best of farces, is impossibly quirky — with enough twists and turns and misunderstandings in the script to defy description. There’s more than enough plot ingredients to spice up the stockpot — a ghost that exists mostly in the imagination of the most vulnerable members of the cast, an intruder who really isn’t an intruder at all, just another mistaken identity in the mix, and enough thunder, booze, unidentified sound effects and repressed sexuality to keep the audience glued to their seats.

Yet, it must be said that even with a 15-minute intermission, it’s a long-winded journey. Thankfully, it’s mainly saved by Ayckbourn’s unfailing, if loquacious wit. When the slapstick and the setups work, and when this well-meaning ensemble is on their marks, the time flies. The Sunday matinee audience when I attended was a little slow to rouse — matinees are generally a well-recognized challenge even for a seasoned company — so this young, eager-to-please ensemble tottered dangerously close to overacting, even given the broad nature of the script. But by the second half, everyone — audience included — was on their game, and even the newest members shone at their best.

From her first entrance, the petite Tia Shearer as Elizabeth establishes her character’s obsession with dance and high drama, with a burning desire to follow her dream, however absurd her chances of success. She jerks and stretches each limb like a tipsy marionette but she’s a graceful wench to watch, bringing to mind a Chaplin-esque timing to the whole business. Her arch deliveries are topped off by a porcelain countenance and huge saucer-eyed expressions which could cause that legendary little sparrow, Edith Piaf, to turn in her grave. She’s paired with a bumbling, baby-faced husband who takes all her posturing with a grain of salt, which leads to even more fireworks. Matthew R. Wilson as her mate, Roland, brings a rare maturity and ease to the part for such a young man, floating bleary-eyed through every mishap on another trusty glass of scotch.

Dylan Myers plays Elizabeth’s stick-in-the-mud sibling Mark. He wants nothing more in life than to open a supply shop for anglers and marry his pert fiancée, Kitty. That’s decent enough but his biggest problem is that his character manages to put the rest of the cast asleep every time he pontificates on a point. To this actor’s credit, he’s a believable nerd and manages to keep the audience awake. Megan Graves makes her debut with the company and manages to play the befuddled fiancée Kitty who gives out more than one proper shriek of horror during the play’s proceedings.

Two other newcomers to Constellation’s roster of actors are Matthew McGee as Tristram and Doug Wilder as Leslie. As a legal assistant who gets unwittingly caught up in this melee of musical beds, McGee’s Tristram reminds one of a snivelly-nosed bookkeeper straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. There are times when his faint-hearted blubbering threatens to overwhelm his character’s believability, but this is a danger so common to farce, it’s hardly a criticism. Wilder’s Leslie is a big-chested, brutish, but well-meaning local who hopes to unload this unwieldy piece of real estate on Roland once and for all. One of the highlights in Ayckbourn’s comedy of errors occurs when these actors attempt to wake up Roland from an alcoholic-induced haze, thinking that he is sleeping the sleep of the dead. They are the three stooges incarnate and Wilson’s Roland shows real comic genius in his on again, off again attempts to come around.

A.J. Guban’s set is the real star of the show. Director Allison Arkell Stockman has kept to the original architectural plan that Ayckbourn intended. For Constellation’s theatre-in-the-round, the arrangement is very workable. The set manages to be a kind of clever three-ring circus representing three floors of the house, all on the same plane. Through a device of two supposed staircases on opposite sides, the action remains consistently fluid. (These are established early on by the beautifully directed pantomiming by the performers as they go up and down single-file throughout the action of the play.)

A former Victorian brothel, the house now serves as the temporary quarters of Roland and Elizabeth. At one end of the set, the designer has placed Elizabeth’s bedroom, the center ring is set as the third floor bedroom, with a slanted trapezoid overhang which establishes this as the attic room level. Dressed in rich burgundies and blues, with a generous pastiche of chandeliers, fringe lamps, settees, writing desks and carpeting, the set strikes just the right chord to suggest an alluring but seemingly haunted house. Cory Ryan Frank’s lighting is an intricate set-up, requiring fast speed transitions between the playing areas, as well as the vicissitudes of the weather. Kenra Rai’s costumes complement as well as amuse, particularly with the fanciful get-ups we expect of a flamboyant character like Elisabeth or a wild motorcycle hound like the loudmouthed Leslie.

Ayckbourn is an Olivier, Tony and Moliere award-winning playwright. To say he is prolific is an understatement, with 76 plays under his belt, more than half of which have been produced in London’s West End as well as on Broadway and around the world. American audiences will be most familiar with such productions as The Norman Conquests and Absurd Person Singular. Director Stockman describes Taking Steps as a “comedy with great heart.” Perhaps her greatest challenge in directing a playwright who is so good at setting up ridiculous situations that require a fast-paced physicality from the cast, is to imbue the overall story with the right measure of humanity in order to get under the skin of these characters. “They all struggle with communication,” she explains. “We see in them the human tendencies to hold back from speaking hard truths. The play urges us to be open and honest in our own lives, to have the courage to identify our true dreams and to pursue them.”

It takes a sensitive director, and a perceptive audience I might add, to find such a profound message underneath the farce. There are moments, in between the wry humor and the rough and tumble hijinks, where we catch a gleam of vulnerability, a rueful underpinning to a character’s clownish exterior. It would be good to see more. Constellation is the 2009 Helen Hayes Award Recipient of the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company. Under the conscientious and caring eye of founding artistic director Stockman, they are filling their shoes just fine.

(“Taking Steps” is playing through October 7th at the Constellation Theatre at Source, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C. For more information, please call 202-204-7741 or visit http://www.constellationtheatre.org)

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