Houston — 'Tis the season and somebody must have thought it pretty jolly to stage ''Season's Greetings,'' that 1980 Christmas comedy by British dramatist Alan Ayckbourn.
As one of England's ablest and most prolific comic playwrights, Ayckbourn knows how to transform the most tepid of middle-class households into a three-ring farce of emotional misperceptions and physical missteps. But as in Chekhov's works, Ayckbourn's characters tread finely the line between comedy and tragedy. There is always a down side to the yuks.
''Season's Greetings,'' Ayckbourn's second Christmas play after his touted ''Absurd Person Singular,'' traces just such a household through the perils and joys of an ''average family Christmas.'' Average, in this instance, includes culinary disasters, a Christmas tree wired for sound, and numerous relationships blowing up in everyone's faces. When first performed in London in 1982, it was hailed as among Ayckbourn's best.
Unfortunately, the current production at the Alley Theatre takes ''Season's'' jollity too seriously. Irony, the essential ingredient in any Ayckbourn farce, has been somehow mislaid. As a result, the Alley production snares more than a few laughs but lacks the emotional depth to counterbalance the hilarity. What remains is a tinselly concoction, appropriate to the season and pretty to look at - the Dale Jordan-designed set must be every American's fantasy of an English country house dolled up for the holidays - but one that falls short of Ayckbourn's multiple intent.
It is doubly unfortunate because as one of the country's more renowned regional theaters, the Alley possesses a unique and happy association with the British playwright. During its 37-year history, the theater has produced both ''How the Other Half Loves'' (1977) and ''Absurd Person Singular'' (1978). Two years ago, Ayckbourn himself arrived on the theater's doorstep with his own acting company in tow and produced ''Way Upstream'' and ''Absent Friends.''
As the second work in the Alley's 1984-85 season, ''Season's Greetings'' details a four-day holiday gathering in the upper-middle-class home of Neville and Belinda Bunker. The play also assembles the typical Ayckbourn socio-economic microcosm of mismatched mates, eccentric relatives, and the one available male at
whom nearly all the female characters fling themselves with varying degrees of success. As in many of the author's 31 other plays, Ayckbourn's signature use of locale and time, so crucial to his unique dramatic structure, is once again in evidence. This time all the action takes place in the grand front hallway and two adjoining rooms - a layout not helped by the Alley's thrust stage. The booby-trapped Christmas tree, unruly electronic gifts, and a disastrous puppet show add seasonal spice to the fray.
It's a farcical structure, but one that leaves plenty of room for Ayckbourn's darker side - the erosion of surface humor which reveals the desperateness of the characters' actions. It's a handy peg upon which to hang the label bittersweet. And when well done, Ayckbourn's comedies play with more than a bit of bite.
But under Alley artistic director Pat Brown's direction, ''Season's Greetings'' is one-dimensional, playing only for laughs - and predictable ones at that. No risks have been undertaken with either the acting or the directing. Distracted husbands and neglected wives are simply that; one uncle is beneficent if slightly dotty, the other is a crank. Characters are lined up like one-note counterpoints to one another, bereft of the nuances and subtle shadings of personality necessary to flesh out otherwise stock comic characters. During the opening night performance, one longed for the eccentricity and rich humanity displayed by such British actors as Tom Conti and Penelope Keith.
Robert Cornthwaite as Harvey Bunker, the grumpy uncle who hands out guns as children's Christmas presents, was humorous - his lines are clearly the funniest of the evening - but he lacked a certain malevolence to his character. He was sardonic but not sufficiently disturbing to cast a pall over the holiday. And his verbal sparring with his moral counterpart, Dale Helward as the kindly if bumbling uncle, Dr. Bernard Longstaff, lacked urgency.
The rest of the cast, including Fredi Olster as Belinda and Richard Poe as Neville, rendered rather sitcom versions of their characters. As Eddie, Rick Hamilton was particularly lackluster, making it difficult to see his character's appeal for Neville. Michael Alan Gregory, as the footloose intellectual writer Clive, was simply too earnest and facile to be convincing as ''the funniest new writer this season,'' let alone the object of three women's desires.
In the face of this adequate but unspectacular cast, two high points did emerge. The first was Alley Acting Company member Lillian Evans's portrayal of Phyllis, the blond, besotted wife of Dr. Longstaff. With her ample figure swathed in silk and topped by a cone-shaped party hat and her late-night demands to know ''all about English literature before it's too late,'' Evans looked and acted like everybody's favorite loopy aunt. When she kneelingly beat on a box in imitation of a wind-up teddy bear, it was a moment of pure comic delight.
Only the puppet show in the second act generated more hilarity. A bungled version of the childhood tale ''The Three Little Pigs,'' this play-within-a-play had puppet pigs flinging about the stage as fast as the verbal feints. As one of the evening's rare moments that did full justice to Ayckbourn's comic skills, it also came close to upstaging the production as a whole. At the Alley through Jan. 6.