Florida Weekly Raves! “How the Other Half Loves” at Florida Repertory Theatre shows us exactly how it should be done.

Florida Weekly Raves! “How the Other Half Loves” at Florida Repertory Theatre shows us exactly how it should be done.

British farce!

It can be so difficult for us Yanks to get it right: the tone, the attitude, the inflections, the timing.

In lesser productions, the lines fall flatter than a steamrolled soufflé and the show’s merely a series of missed opportunities.

But “How the Other Half Loves” at Florida Repertory Theatre shows us exactly how it should be done.

With director Mark Shanahan and a sextet of highly skilled actors, this production is a master class in how to execute this type of comedy. It’s more difficult than it looks, this breezy casualness and split-second timing.

Mr. Shanahan knows comedy, and it shows. (He has previously directed “Around the World in 80 Days” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at Florida Rep.)

And playwright Alan Ayckbourn is known for these kind of plays; he also wrote “Absurd Person Singular,” “Bedroom Farce” and “The Norman Conquests,” to name just a few of his more than 80 plays. He’s the king of absurdity, writing scenes where people speak at cross-purposes with each other, each one having a conversation about something totally different. Misunderstandings grow exponentially.

“How the Other Half Loves” presents us with three couples, each at a different stage in their marriage. There’s Frank (Paxton Whitehead) and Fiona (Carrie Lund), long married, well established and well off. But their marriage is a little frosty. Then there’s Bob (Brendan Powers) and Teresa (Kate Hampton), who are working class. (Bob works for Frank.) They’ve been married a while and the romance has evaporated. They have a young son, and Teresa hates being left in the house with him all day. She also hates Bob’s neglect and highhanded ways.

What Teresa doesn’t know is that her husband is having an affair — or a fling — with Fiona. But she does suspect something’s up. Both Bob and Fiona returned home very late after a tryst, and now their spouses are demanding to know where they were.

To cover his tracks, Bob tells his wife he was with William (Jason Parrish), a man at work, who believes his wife Mary (Faith Sandberg) is having an affair. And when pressed for a reason for being out so late, Fiona, inspired by Bob’s lie, tells her husband she was comforting Mary, who believes her husband’s having an affair.

William and Mary — the Featherstones — are the fledgling couple, not many years into their marriage and still finding their way. They are completely innocent and have no idea they’ve been used as scapegoats by the adulterous pair whose respective spouses erroneously believe that they are having affairs with other people.

Hope you’ve followed that.

It just gets increasingly more complex as the couples get together and try to help each other, only to make things worse.

As in any farce, the first act sets up the premise and the second act is one long, extended punch line, or a series of punch lines, as the set-ups come to their natural and rib-tickling conclusions.

Tony-nominated Broadway and screen actor Paxton Whitehead is superb as Frank. Perpetually befuddled and living in his own personal fog, he is Mr. Magooish, without being a caricature. Ms. Lund as his long-suffering wife is a little haughty and a little naughty. She looks after her husband as if he were a toddler.

Mr. Powers plays Bob as light and breezy, without a care. It’s 1969, and he still expects his wife to wait on him hand and foot. Ms. Hampton, as his wife, does a slow burn, until she finally explodes. Out of the three couples, this one provides the most fireworks.

Poor William and Mary are put upon for much of the play, not comprehending why everyone’s acting so strangely around them. Mr. Parrish’s William is trying to impress his boss, yet ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time, due to no fault of his own. Mr. Parrish is a skilled comic actor, and his character’s increasing bewilderment while still trying to please those around him is performed with ease.

And Ms. Sandberg’s Mary is just too fun to watch. This is the actor’s debut at Florida Rep, and what a find she is. Her Mary is mousy, nail-bitingly anxious, uncertain how to behave. She has some great moments of physical comedy with her purse in one scene and with a vacuum cleaner in another. As she ducks her head and looks as though she longs to hide behind some large piece of furniture, there is something oddly compelling and even endearing about her, despite her self-doubt and mousiness.

The men are oblivious, their wives at least two or three steps ahead of them. But that doesn’t stop the men from believing that they’re in charge.

The genius of this play — besides the way Mr. Ayckbourn makes all these misunderstandings mount up and dovetail so perfectly — is that the action in two households takes place simultaneously onstage in the same space.

So you’ll see Frank and Fiona having a conversation while Bob and Teresa are also speaking with each other. In fact, the two women set the dining room table for their guests, William and Mary, at the same time, performing a nice ballet as they circle around the same table in the same space.

Ray Recht’s clever set conveys this sense of two households in the same space, with alternating décor. We have Bob and Teresa’s blue and white wallpaper and blue curtains alternating with Frank and Fiona’s tasteful red and gold wallpaper and cream wainscoting. The sofa is part Frank and Fiona’s (red) and part Bob and Teresa’s (blue.) We’re given two front doors (Frank and Fiona’s unseen, just a pair of double doors leading to their foyer) and even two chandeliers over the dining room table, which is encircled by red chairs (for Frank and Fiona) and blue chairs (for Bob and Teresa.)

A highlight of the play is seeing William and Mary, invited to both couple’s homes for dinner on consecutive nights, sitting at the table with Frank and Fiona and Bob and Teresa, switching from one dinner to the next and back again, with exquisite perfect timing.

I’m not sure why it’s so entertaining to watch other people’s marriages crash and burn onstage; perhaps because it’s not our own?

“How the Other Half Loves” more than exceeded my expectations, serving up smart, intelligent humor that made me giddy with laughter. With this production, Florida Rep gets it right in every way possible. ¦

‘How the Other Half Loves’

>> When: Through Jan. 31

>> Where: Florida Repertory Theatre, Fort Myers

>> Cost: $45 and $55

>> Info: 332-4488 or www.FloridaRep.org