All praise to the folks at the Brits off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theater for bringing us three works by Alan Ayckbourn (two world premieres and a New York premiere) performed in repertory by a superb ensemble of 11 actors from the Stephen Joseph Theatre of Scarborough, the company that Ayckbourn directed for 37 years. I know that I have said on other occasions that playwrights should not direct their own plays, but I hereby make a notable exception for Ayckbourn. After working with a core of the same actors for many years, he knows how to get exactly the right tone from them. I have seen other productions that were marred by overemphatic acting either allowed or encouraged by their directors.
Realizing that only 7 of the 11 actors appeared in both the other plays, Ayckbourn whipped up a pair of one-act farces for the remaining four. “Chloe with Love” and “The Kidderminster Affair” share the same characters, two rather mismatched couples — Penny (Elizabeth Boag) and Reggie (Kim Wall) plus Teddy (Bill Champion) and Lottie (Sarah Stanley). The first shows Lottie’s hilarious attempts to stoke her husband’s interest. The latter describes a hysterical attempt to hide an adulterous indiscretion. Both are sheer froth, but the word play and physical humor in the second play rise to a high level of inspiration. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes including intermission.
Playing with time and space is a frequent feature of Ayckbourn’s work. We see it again here, both in “Time of My Life” from 1992 and “Arrivals and Departures,” his new play (#76).
We meet the Stratton family, parents Gerry (Russell Dixon) and Laura (Sarah Parks), their elder son Glyn (Richard Stacey) and his wife Stephanie (Emily Pithon), who have just recently reconciled after a separation, and their younger son Adam (James Powell) and his new girlfriend Maureen (Rachel Caffrey) as they gather at the family’s favorite restaurant, a vaguely Middle Eastern place, for a boozy celebration of Laura’s birthday. After the initial party scene, the play fractures into three strands: we follow Gerry and Laura as they remain at the restaurant, we move a year or two into the future with Glyn and Stephanie, and we go backwards in time with Adam and Maureen to their first meeting. All the action takes place in the restaurant. An added touch is that one actor (Ben Porter) plays the restaurant’s owner and all its diverse waiters. We end up where we started as the birthday party begins. It sounds gimmicky, but it works surprisingly well except for a scene in the second act that goes on much too long. The play’s theme seems to be “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes including intermission.
Arrivals and Departures ***
This new play is deliberately less comic than the others. It combines a satiric look at bureaucratic ineptitude with the recollections of two disparate characters, each of whom has been subject to betrayal. A military special forces group led by Quentin (Bill Champion) has concocted a hare-brained scheme to catch a terrorist at a rail terminal in London. Disguised as ordinary people, the group ineptly rehearse their roles before the train arrives. Ez, short for Esme, (Elizabeth Boag) a sullen soldier who is awaiting court martial, is assigned to babysit a chatty older man, Barry (Kim Wall), a traffic warden from Yorkshire who can possibly confirm the suspect’s identity. Awaiting the train’s arrival, Ez looks back on the personal history that has turned her into an edgy, mistrustful person. Much of the second act is a mirror image of the first, except that this time it is Barry who reminisces about his unhappy past. The plan to capture the terrorist does not end happily. I found the ending a bit jarring. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.
The ensemble is so uniformly fine that it almost seems unfair to single out anyone. Nevertheless, I will mention that Boag, Champion, Parks, Porter and Wall made especially strong impressions. Jan Bee Brown's set designs for all three plays are simple but effective.
You may wonder why I rated Ayckbourn Ensemble higher than any of its components. In this case the whole IS greater than the sum of its parts. Seeing the three pieces together in one day increased my admiration of the playwright/director and the superb ensemble cast.