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Confusions

Five subtly linked and superbly performed short plays comprise this hilarious and perceptive work by the supreme British dramatist Alan Ayckbourn.

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Elizabeth Boag, Stephen Billington and Russell Dixon in a scene from Alan Ayckbourn’s “Confusions” (Photo credit: Tony Barthlomew)

Elizabeth Boag, Stephen Billington and Russell Dixon in a scene from Alan Ayckbourn’s “Confusions” (Photo credit: Tony Bartholomew)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

“Between Mouthfuls” is the uproarious centerpiece of the five short plays that comprise Alan Ayckbourn’s Confusions. In a hotel restaurant, an older and a younger married couple bicker with increasing intensity at separate tables as the effete waiter scurries between them taking their orders.  The hysterical theatrical gag is that the audience only hears each couple when the waiter is at their table otherwise they’re seen moving their mouths and gesticulating silently.  That the two couples know each other adds to the hilarity.

As the philandering, pinstriped, mature senior executive Mr. Pearce, Russell Dixon delivers an exhilarating comic performance.  Blustering, perpetually irritated and overbearing, Mr. Dixon employs an arsenal that includes double takes, slow burns and vocal dexterity.  Dixon later appears as a bellicose pub owner and a bespectacled letch in a raincoat, all with as great an impact.  He is dynamically in the tradition of grand British character acting.

In a blue matronly ensemble, magnetic Elizabeth Boag plays the battle-axe Mrs. Pearce with engaging venom.  The character subsequently reappears and gets her comeuppance. Ms. Boag chillingly depicts a depressed housewife, a feisty perfume saleswoman, and a shrewish spurned woman all with vivid relish throughout the program.

Charismatic Richard Stacey demonstrates wry authority as the overworked toadying junior executive Martin.  Mr. Stacey poignantly and powerfully portrays a drunken randy salesman, an unctuous vicar, and a morose widower in his other appearances.

The charming Charlotte Harwood portrays Martin’s manipulative wife Polly with compelling steeliness.  Ms. Harwood’s other perfectly detailed turns include a daffy neighbor, a ditzy blonde perfume saleswoman, a romantically erratic barmaid, and as a harridan certain every man is after her.

Stephen Billington a scene from Alan Ayckbourn’s “Confusions” (Photo credit: Tony Barthlomew)

Stephen Billington a scene from Alan Ayckbourn’s “Confusions” (Photo credit: Tony Bartholomew)

Stephen Billington winningly plays the waiter with delightful harried efficiency and with fey slyness in another play.  Mr. Stacey is also marvelous in his brief roles as a brash husband, a Boy Scout troop leader in the requisite uniform, and as an emotionally suffocated husband.

The subtle conceit that links all of the plays are that each has either a character that actually appears in the succeeding one or one who was referred to in the preceding one.  The other plays are as highly enjoyable as well.

A married couple became raucously infantilized when they act as good Samaritans paying a call on their neighbor, a depressed housewife, in “Mother Figure.”   At a bar in a hotel where a trade show is being held, a married salesman tries to pick up two women in “Drinking Companion.”   A microphone causes mayhem among villagers at town fair during “Gosforth’s Fête.”  Five loquacious neurotics sitting on benches struggle to get away from each other in the Sartrean “A Talk in The Park.”

First performed in 1979, this is a relatively early work by the supreme British dramatist Alan Ayckbourn (b. 1939) who is as of this writing up to his 79th play, Hero’s Welcome. The new play is having its U.S. premiere at 59E59 Theaters and performs in repertory with Confusions. The Norman Conquests is among Ayckbourn’s best-known works and Confusions is representative of his trademark style and concerns.  Human behavior in all its complexities is dramatically rendered with depth and humor in a boldly theatrical and inventive manner. Both productions come from the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, which has staged almost all of Ayckbourn’s plays and from which he retired as Artistic Director in 2009 but where he continues to direct plays.

Richard Stacey in a scene from Alan Ayckbourn’s “Confusions” (Photo credit: Tony Barthlomew)

Richard Stacey in a scene from Alan Ayckbourn’s “Confusions” (Photo credit: Tony Bartholomew)

Mr. Ayckbourn is also the director and his staging farcically mines every bit of verbal and physical comedy with slapstick, sight gags and props.  This is in addition to conveying the inner lives of his archetypical British characters.   Jazzy 1970’s Britcom sounding music is heard during scene transitions.

The simple yet striking scenic design by Michael Holt instantly makes it clear where the actions take place.  Tables, chairs, a crib, banners, and benches are swiftly rearranged at the conclusion of each scene, leading to the next.  Mr. Holt’s vivid costume design also clarifies who each character exactly is as they appear and before they even speak.

Jason Taylor’s lighting design expertly captures the varying locales and moods of the different pieces with stylish realism.

The captivating performances by the extremely versatile company matched with the excellent writing makes Confusions thoughtful and very entertaining.

Confusions (performed in repertory with Hero’s Welcome through July 3, 2016)

2016 Brits Off Broadway

Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th St, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org

Running time: two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

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Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (665 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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