With its comic-book set and toy-piano background music, Auctioning the Ainsleys, the new production at TheatreWorks, creates a mood of absurdist unreality before the first words come out of the first character’s mouth. The fast-paced comic drama by Laura Schellhardt (directed by Meredith McDonough) opens with second-generation auctioneer Avery Ainsley (Heidi Kettenring) selling the last possessions of her domineering mentor father—a Stetson hat, a man’s coat and a pair of size-10 shoes.
Cut to the matriarch of the clan, Alice Ainsley (Diane Dorsey), who has hired a young man named Arthur (Lance Gardner) to record her fading memories, as her mind and body prepare to leave her life of cataloging and selling material possessions behind. Arthur assumes that Alice will have scores of richly detailed stories to share, since three out of four of her adult children still live at the auction house they all call home, but Alice is clear-eyed as she explains to Arthur that proximity is not the same thing as intimacy.
As Alice spills her remaining beans, we meet Annalee (Molly Anne Coogan), who has commandeered her father’s office and turned it into her nerve center for organizing the random scraps of information about the people whose possessions have passed through her family’s hands. She’s so scatterbrained that many of these scraps end up being stapled to her clothing. Living out in the carriage house, which the script repeatedly reminds us is just 10 feet away, is Amelia (Jessica Lynn Carroll), whose forte is assembling the stuff that’s been brought in for sale into attractive, harmoniously balanced lots. And down in the basement is Aiden (Liam Vincent). He is a master at making sure the pieces the Ainsley Auction House offers for sale have just the right amount of tarnish and patina. He’s so good at authentic deception he’s come to see himself as an enabler of other people’s spiritual decay.
The play is filled with fine performances (Kettenring’s fast-paced auctioneer banter is convincing, as is Carroll’s naiveté), despite the fact that Schellhardt’s characters are essentially caricatures. And if on occasion the play sinks to platitudes (Avery: “It isn’t time to take stock; it’s time to move on”) and shtick (Amelia: “There were signs, and I ignored them.” Avery: “What signs?” Amelia: “I don’t know; I ignored them.” Ba-da-bump!), we only have to sit on our bidding paddles for a moment or two until another exchange is presented for our consideration.
Auctioning the Ainsleys, a TheatreWorks production, Plays Tuesday–Wednesday at 7:30pm, Thursday–Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm (at 8pm only on Aug. 7), and Sunday at 2 and 7pm (at 2pm only on Aug. 8) through August 8 at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto.
Tickets are $19–$56
Visit TheatreWorks website.