Auction Figures



Show #79: Auctioning the Ainsleys, TheatreWorks, July 18.

Molly Anne Coogan, Liam Vincent and Jessica Lynn Carroll in Auctioning the Ainsleys. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

By Sam Hurwitt


Annalee Ainsley is concerned. She’s concerned about a lot of things, but among them is the idea that because her family lives in the Midwest people will think they’re neither here nor there, and because they live in a small town people will think they live small lives. The fact is, the Ainsleys don’t live in town at all—they live in a stately manor, which they seemingly never leave. In fact, they hardly leave their respective rooms, preferring to communicate by intercom, and haven’t laid eyes on their mother upstairs in who knows how long. “No small lives,” Annalee repeats firmly, but in truth the Ainsleys hardly seem to be living life at all.

Auctioning the Ainsleys is a curious comedy, as seen in its world premiere  production staged by director of new works Meredith McDonough that opens TheatreWorks’ 2010-11 season. Originally commissioned by Chicago’s Northlight Theatre and developed through TheatreWorks’ New Works Initiative, it was written by Laura Schellhardt, a young playwright whose one-woman play The K of D opened Loretta Greco’s tenure at Magic Theatre in 2008.

The marvelous three-level rotating set by Annie Smart is reminiscent of a doll’s house, the walls lined with plates and paintings and shelves of odd objects that disappear gradually as the play goes on, whether it’s because Avery has auctioned them or more likely because Alice has forgotten them. Smart’s costumes are very retro stylish: people dress as if it’s the early ’60s, when in fact it’s the present day. Sound designer Cliff Caruthers’s music-box-style harpsichord music becomes a little cloying as the piece goes on.

The Ainsleys are a family whose deceased patriarch was an estate sale auctioneer, and which has carried on the family business since his passing. Eldest daughter Avery left the family long ago to become a traveling auctioneer, so it’s unclear who among the stay-at-home Ainsleys took up the gavel for the actual estate sales, but son Aiden has continued to polish and restore the items for auction.

Not only does everyone in the play’s name begin with A (except for characters we hear about but never meet), but each has a particular obsession with organizing and making sense of the stuff of life.

Mother Alice Ainsley is losing her memory, and surrounds herself with knickknacks to remind her of people and events in her life, but when she finally loses the memory associated with an object, the object itself disappears with an electrical crackle and pop. Other characters can still see and mime use of the objects, but they’re invisible to Alice and the audience. Diane Dorsey carries herself with an appealing air of self-assuredness as Alice, the fading matriarch having accepted her plight with exceptional equanimity.

She’s hired the very conscientious Arthur (an earnest, placid Lance Gardner) to write down all the family stories, no matter how small, before they vanish into nothing. He comes from a mysterious employment agency that magically gives people exactly the sort of person they ask for—in this case someone she feels she’s known forever. Besides his meticulous chronicling of experience, Arthur is a collector. His pockets are filled with odd objects that past employers have given him.

A bespectacled Molly Anne Coogan gives an amusingly high-strung performance as lisping, nerdy daughter Annalee, who holds court in her father’s old office, constantly stapling slips of paper regarding the various people with whom the family does business and filing them away using a system that only she understands. When agitated, which is often, Annalee has a habit of stapling things to her clothes and falling back on a bunch of useful metaphors her therapist gave her to help deal with stress, from dust bunnies to putting people in jars.

Youngest daughter Amelia obsesses over matchmaking through people’s possessions that complement each other. The only married Ainsley, she’s always comparing her pile of stuff to that of her absent husband to make sure their very different piles balance each other out. Jessica Lynn Carroll is delightfully animated and rather squeaky as the childlike Amelia, like a debutante who never grew beyond her debut.

The only son Aiden can’t abide clutter, has no possessions to speak of, and hates that the family is always bringing other people’s junk home—the only saving grace being that their business is getting rid of it again. Liam Vincent is particularly likeable in an unfriendly way as Aiden, with a sort of exasperated, acerbic charisma that’s particularly appealing to Arthur in what you could almost call a romance if there were more emotion in the play.

People are always talking about how fast eldest daughter Avery talks, but Heidi Kettenring only talks quickly while auctioneering. The rest of the time she may be brash and abrasive, but not fast per se. Decked out in cowboy gear and self-consciously using folksy sayings she picked all over the Midwest, Avery is shrill, sarcastic and generally unpleasant to be around, on either side of the fourth wall. Her bitter auctioneer’s patter as she sells off pieces of the family history is especially wearying.

The dying Alice willed the family house, which the rest of her grown children have never left, to Avery knowing that she’s the only one who’d sell it and shut it down, forcing the Ainsleys to take stock of their lives. Avery left home 15 years ago, after her father died, and one of the play’s slow reveals is of why she left, how her father died, and why she’s so bitter. Emotionally, the revelation doesn’t quite live up to the buildup, but this is not a play particularly grounded in human emotion or behavior.

There’s a ritualistic quality to the whole undertaking, with very heightened, stagey performances and a very clever script that sometimes feels intoxicated with its own cleverness. The characters are often amusing, but they’re pieces of a puzzle, not people, and the language is a bit stilted, albeit laced lightly with profanity.  Lines like “She’ll fight me on the giving” land with a thud, while others are no less stately but positively soar, such as when Amelia says brightly, “I don’t mind you asking, but also, I’m going to ignore that you did.”

Some of the language play is too cute to sustain over two hours, such as Aiden’s habit of calling Arthur “Knickknack,” “Bric-a-Brac,” “Poppet,” “Tintype,” “Meerkat” and “my little Bagatelle.” Amelia’s distinction between poof and piff to describe how quietly some things vanish is clever, though it loses something in repetition.

For all that, the script is often very funny. I seem to keep coming back to Amelia, but she does get some awfully good lines.  “It’s my fault,” she says at one point. “There were signs and I ignored them.” When asked “What signs?” she says, “I don’t know, because I ignored them.”

The lovely, generous ending sequence only accentuates the sense that this is more of a ceremony than a slice of life, large or small—and it may give the stunted characters far too much credit in singing their (yes, I’m sorry) small lives to the stars.


Auctioning the Ainsleys plays through August 8 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto.

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