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'Singular' sensation of laughs

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ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR *** Biltmore Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.; (212) 239-6200.

THREE catastrophes in three acts, all quietly, slyly offered, sum up "Absurd Person Singular," Alan Ayckbourn's blackish comedy, which opened last night at the Biltmore Theatre.

With Ayckbourn, comedy is simply domestic tragedy turned upside down, inside out, and is happily happening to other people.

This 1972 comedy, revived by the Manhattan Theatre Club, for many years Ayckbourn's New York home base, is a machine-tooled case in point.

With spectacular neatness and varyingly disastrous but consistently hilarious consequences, he brings together three married couples on three consecutive Christmas Eves in their three respective kitchens.

First, a hopefully upwardly mobile couple suffer the agonies of social near-disgrace; then, an unhappy woman silently, resourcefully but unavailingly attempts suicide during an entire act; and finally, four of this sad sextet are totally humiliated by the grossly triumphant pair who have, by now, upwardly mobiled.

When the play was new on Broadway in 1974, with a cast including Geraldine Page and Sandy Dennis, the emphasis was on farce. Now experienced Ayckbourn hand John Tillinger ups the ante for a rather subtler, but still riotously funny, style of comedy.

He is helped by John Lee Beatty's settings (each kitchen cleverly representative of its owners' character and lifestyle), Jane Greenwood's apt costumes and a first-rate cast.

Mireille Enos is great as the disheveled, mute would-be suicide, while a brusque Sam Robards scores as her self-satisfied architect husband.

As the working-class couple - and throughout Ayckbourn's thumb is firmly pressed down on the British caste system - a properly odious Alan Ruck and a gorgeously ditsy Clea Lewis are brashly right.

Yet perhaps the best laughs go to Deborah Rush as a snobbish banker's wife with a saucy taste for the sauce, and the plummy-voiced Paxton Whitehead as her despairingly henpecked husband.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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