Part of the fun of the Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters each June are the new plays that Sir Alan Ayckbourn sends us periodically with the original casts from his Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, England. This year he has sent us three running in repertory – two new plays in their world premiere productions (Arrivals &Departures and Farcicals: A Double Bill of Frivolous Comedies) and a revival of his 1992 Time of My Life, making its New York debut. Not only is this a bonanza for lovers of the plays of the grandmaster of British theater but it represent the most new Ayckbourn plays to be appearing locally at the same time. Ayckbourn plays have notorious English rhythms and to see them with their original cast directed by the playwright himself is to see superb character acting in very juicy parts. The 11-member cast of the Ayckbourn Ensemble represents some of the best acting to be seen locally. It is also great fun to see each of the actors return in a different role in a second play. And after 78 plays in 50 years, you would think that Ayckbourn could not come up with any new theatrical device, but as always his plays surprise you by their originality and their cleverness.
Two of these Ayckbourn plays continue his remarkable experiments with time. In the two acts of Arrivals &Departures we see the same events but from a different person’s point of view: what she is thinking and what he is thinking. Not surprisingly from its title, Arrivals &Departures takes place mainly at a London railroad terminal where the SSDO (Strategic Simulated Distraction Operations) is hoping to catch a terrorist named Cerastes who should be arriving on a train from Harrogate. Captain Quentin Sexton (currently an acting Major) arranges his handpicked team to appear to be travelers and workers in the station in a series of scenarios which they have rehearsed and rehearsed. These early scenes with most of Quentin’s operatives missing their cues or giving away that they are ringers is hilarious.
As if this is not bad enough, Quentin is informed that he will be saddled with a civilian witness, Barry Hawkins, a garrulous traffic warden in his fifties from Yorkshire, who has seen the suspect, and his CBSD (Civilian Baby Sitting Detail), 23-year-old, female Officer Ez Swain, a taciturn and truculent soldier with a troubled past. Quentin keeps telling Ez and Barry to “merge” in order to disguise their function, but Barry cannot break the ice with the uncommunicative and distant soldier no matter how hard he tries. Every detail of the operation has been carefully worked out, but as luck would have it, everything goes wrong.
While waiting for the train to arrive in Act I as Barry natters on, we hear and see reenacted Ez’s memories as she reviews her troubled life, all of the key events in her life taking place in railroad stations from the time she is ten seeing her father off, her choice to be a soldier when her soldier father is killed in 2002 on a tour of duty, up to her later encounters with her officer boyfriend and his family. In the second act, we turn the clock back and reverse the angle and hear what Barry is thinking about his life up north, from the day of his leaving on his honeymoon, the birth of his daughter Daisy, through his career which doesn’t turn out the way he expected, during this same time period while Ez is thinking her own thoughts. Ayckbourn dramatizes their entire lives in the few pointed scenes he chooses to show us. Ultimately, the play has several tremendously ironic revelations as to the stories of Ez and Barry as well as to the tactical operations. Their contrasting lives are quite poignant as well as fully detailed in delineating their lives. While Arrivals &Departures is ultimately very satisfying theater, the first act seems a tad long as the play does not give up where it is going until the second act.
While all 11 members of the Ayckbourn ensemble appear in this play, three of them have the major roles. Elizabeth Boag is extraordinary in the difficult part of the seemingly traumatized Ez Swain as she says as little as possible but communicates a great deal in this manner. Kim Wall is also memorable as Barry who entertains us with his folky humor and his long life experience. Bill Champion is most amusing as the harried and exasperated major attempting to do a job which seems as difficult as herding cats. One of Richard Stacey’s four notable roles is as Ez’s upper class boyfriend Rob with a deep sense of entitlement. Emily Pithon is particularly fine as Barry’s shrewish wife Debs and later as his disapproving daughter Daisy. Joe Bee Brown’s unit setting is perfect for both the railroad terminal as well as the locale for all of the flashbacks, while his costumes seem to people the stage with a microcosm of types.
The hilarious Farcicals: A Double Bill of Frivolous Comedies, unfortunately being given the fewest New York performances, is Ayckbourn’s first farces since 1979 and his first one acts since 1983. As all of Ayckbourn’s plays are driven by character, it is no surprise that these two one-act comedies intended to be played together are too. Although the two sets for these plays are exactly the same, the first takes place in the back garden of the home of Penny and Reggie Bottlecamp, while the second play represents the adjoining garden of their friends and neighbors, Lottie and Teddy Bulbin. In the curtain raiser, Chloë With Love, while the husbands are off doing their own thing, dowdy Lottie confines to her more sophisticated friend Penny that she thinks her marriage has gone stale and that Teddy is losing interest in her. Penny’s solution is to give her a makeover as their sexy friend “Chloë” which will make Teddy sit up and take notice. However, Penny’s makeover is too good and her very dense husband Reggie who has not been put in the picture won’t leave Teddy alone with “Chloë” to rekindle the Bulbins’ marriage.
In the second play, some time later, in the Bulbin’s garden just before a barbecue that the friends are sharing, Lottie, just as dowdy as ever, confides to Penny that she has evidence that her husband has been having an affair in nearby Kidderminster. Soon after Reggie confides in Teddy that he thinks he has caught his wife in an indiscretion in Kidderminster. Both sets of friends agree to keep off the topic of name fraught with danger. However, while Penny is a quick study and able to come up with instant inventions, Reggie is as unusually dense as they come. Teddy’s elaborate lies come crashing down on their heads as Reggie manages to give away more than necessary. Will their marriages survive the revelations?
Boag, Champion, Wall and Sarah Stanley make a wonderful quartet, particular after seeing them in quite different roles in Arrivals &Departures. While Boag was all repressed femininity, silences and moods in the other play, here she is the urbane and stylish Penny, beautiful, wise and classy. Riotously, Stanley (who plays three roles in the earlier work) gets to play both the mousy Lottie and her opposite as the desirable and amatory “Chloë.” Champion, seen in Arrivals &Departures as the harried major, is very different here as the very suave, self-assured and womanizing Teddy who loves his wife but can’t seem to avoid falling for the women he meets. Wall, playing a variation on his Barry in the earlier play, is the delightfully dense Reggie who not only can’t read signals, he also manages to get everything wrong. Tigger Johnson has bathed Brown’s garden setting in enough light to turn the stage into an English summer, while Brown’s costumes perfectly define the four dissimilar characters.
Time of My Life is the most serious of the plays from the very beginning and becomes more caustic as it develops. The Stratton family has gathered at their favorite neighborhood restaurant, of an amusingly unidentified European cuisine, in order to celebrate matriarch Laura’s 54th birthday. Aside from her husband Gerry, a businessman, the group also includes their elder son Glyn (employed in the family business) and his wife Stephanie (just reconciled after his latest affair), and their younger son, the 23-year-old Adam and his new girlfriend Maureen, a hairdresser being introduced to the waspish-tongued Laura for the first time. As the waiter serves the second cup of coffee, it becomes obvious that Laura doesn’t like Maureen or her daughter-in-law and eventually we learn that she had always favored younger son Adam over Glyn who resents it. When the younger people leave, Laura and Gerry are left to examine their unhappy family and the wreckage of their lives.
However, the set depicts three tables set for meals. Twenty minutes into the play, we discover that we are in three time frames simultaneously: at the table on stage right, Glyn and Stephanie, who were trying to patch up their relationship after she has discovered an affair of Glyn’s at Laura’s birthday party, meet for a series of meals over the next two years at which their relationship continues on a downward spiral. At the table on stage left, we watch time move backwards to the moment Adam and Maureen first met at this same restaurant during a misunderstanding about who they both were, she expecting a blind date, and he an interviewee for job he has advertised. And Laura and Gerry, at the center table, continue to argue and take apart their marriage on the night of the birthday dinner, Laura revealing that she had an affair many years ago, and that they have not shared a bedroom in the past ten years.
As time passes and the revelations come thick and fast, it becomes obvious that Laura has also been a disastrous mother, maiming both sons for life, turning Glyn into a serial seducer and Adam into a man who can’t find his niche but who drifts from one career to another, never able to settle down. However, her sons’ women suffer her scorn also: besides Stephanie who she doesn’t like, Laura decides on first meeting the nervous and inappropriately dressed Maureen that she is an alcoholic and not worthy of her son. (Maureen, of course, has drunk too much out of her nervous over being an unacceptable outsider.) Her tacit and not so secret dislike will weigh heavily in all their lives. The final scene in the play is actually the first as the family gathers to toast Laura as the dinner party – and their last happy moments together – begins.
Connecting this dark family story together is a series of waiters who serve at the three tables. All five with varyingly discernable accents are played by Ben Porter in an acting tour de force making the men seemingly from five different nationalities. This comes as welcome relief from the rest of the action which becomes less comic and joyful and more incisive and penetrating as the evening goes on.
Ayckbourn’s roles are always so rich and detailed that in the two hours plus traffic of the play we learn everything we need to know about the lives of these people. Sarah Parks gives a big, bravura performance as Laura who becomes more self-absorbed, egotistical, snobbish and grasping the more we see and hear of her. This role has its roots in Greek drama where no blemish is left undisclosed. Richard Stacey as the untruthful and insincere married brother and James Powell as the younger brother who is unable to settle down are fine as men damaged in youth whose bad habits have continued into adulthood. Russell Dixon, who plays a series of fathers in Arrivals &
Departures, makes Gerry a full-bodied portrait of a disappointed man too late discovering that he should not have let his wife always have her way.
Rachel Caffrey’s Maureen is a portrait of a lower class woman who copies her betters as a way of climbing the social ladder, but sees what the family cannot see. When he refuses to introduce her to his parents at Christmas, it is left to her to tell Adam, “My God, sometimes parents have a lot to answer for, don’t they?” Emily Pithon’s Stephanie is the downtrodden housewife who finally comes into her own when she decides not to let her husband run her life anymore. Brown’s unit set allows for the scenes to follow immediately, one upon the other, while his costumes, which also define the characters’ personalities, always signify to us the changes in time.
Whether you see all three Alan Ayckbourn plays acted by the superlative Ayckbourn Ensemble or only one, you will be impressed and entertained by this master craftsman of the theater who is still able to surprise us after all these years. All three plays seem to share a common theme, one to be found in many Ayckbourn plays: you never know you are happy until you see what is coming round the corner.
Ayckbourn Ensemble (performed in repertory through June 29, 2014)
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, England
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
For more information, visit http://www.britsoffbroadway.com
Arrivals &Departures – two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission
Farcicals: A Double Bill of Frivolous Comedies – one hour and 45 minutes including one intermission
Time of My Life – two hours and 35 minutes with one intermission