by Carole Di Tosti
A Brief History of Women written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn is a profound and humorous delight. Its symbolic nuances surprise and its deep parallels of characterization with casting (six actors play 21 roles of varying classes) weave magnificently. The play which is comedic yet poignant reminds us that our arc of personal history is often crafted into a tapestry of subtle wonder.
The ironic title directs our focus to the women who transform protagonist Spates’ seemingly quiescent life starting from his teenage years right up to his seventies. It is through the intriguing backdrop of the characterization of these women who serve as catalysts, and the stately setting where Spates meets them that Ayckbourn identifies vital concepts. One is that societal mores toward women may have shifted externally, but the underlying themes of gender, love and relationships largely remain the same.
We witness the humorous and poignant evolution of protagonist Spates (a stunning performance by Anthony Eden whose process of aging is seamless and stealthy). His growth in consciousness begins with his startling, life-changing encounter with Lady Caroline Kirkbridge (the versatile, adroit Frances Marshall) at Kirkbridge Manor. It concludes with his surprise encounter with her again in Kirkbridge Manor Hotel sixty years later. Though time and progress have externally transformed the function of the Manor and the roles of Spates and Lady Caroline, as they reminiscence about their lives and the Manor, we understand that at the core, they are the same.
As Kirkbridge Manor morphs from elegant estate to Preparatory School for Girls, to an Arts Center and then a hotel, Spates’ roles morph from teacher to Administrator and then to Hotel manager who retires and fills in when necessary. In each iteration, we note that Spates is largely uncomplaining, observant and stoic as he allows events to wash over him like a rock in churning whitewater.
However, this is not a failing. Indeed, Eden’s Spates is an ironic, unassuming Beta male, an Everyman, who women find imminently approachable, appealing and a ready salvation. Because Spates allows them to be the aggressors and he adheres to their guidance, he achieves a grace and humility that affords him essentially amazing experiences with these wonderful women, who in two instances have been mistreated by Alpha male husbands.
During his career as a teacher at the Preparatory Girls School, girlfriend and fellow teacher Ursula Brock (the hysterical Laura Matthews) humorously enacts her lusts on Spates in public spaces because she mourns the death of her lover and needs immediate affection. Though headmaster Dr. Williams (Russell Dixon is spot-on fantastic) warns Spates to control her advances, during school festivities, Spates sexually riles her up and together they effect a tragic/comic, LOL series of events that end unsportingly for the couple. Ayckbourn’s keen direction of the ensemble’s timing and pacing is a funny, magnificent end to the first act.
Twenty years later the Manor transforms. Spates administrates the Kirkbridge Arts Centre and in a beautifully intricate series of events, Ayckbourn shepherds the actors to create a touching scene where Gillian Dunbar (the fine Louise Shuttleworth) throws herself at Spates after the two of them discover her husband Dennis (Russell Dixon’s portrayal is gobsmacking) and Pat Wriggley (Frances Marshall is hysterical) are having an affair. We later discover that this momentous occasion leads to Spates’ marriage to Gillian and the most fulfilling chapter of his life after the debacle with Ursula at the Manor years before.
All of these life-changing interactions center around the Manor, a quasi-maternal character integral to Spates’ well-being. That the house has served as a nest that nurtures him, Ayckbourn underscores at the conclusion in a circular irony. For the surprise reunion with the former Lady Caroline takes place in the very room where as a teenager he saved her from a beating from Lord Kirkbridge (Russell Dixon’s Alpha male is frightening) in his only aggressive act.
The importance of the changing Manor, the rooms, the character actions in them are classic Ayckbourn, intricate, brilliant. Kudos go to the wonderful creative team, Kevin Jenkins (Set and Costume Design), Jason Taylor (Lighting Design). Simon Slater’s music is thrilling and emotionally powerful. The cast rounded out by the excellent Laurence Pears is fabulous.
Photos: Tony Bartholomew
This must-see production runs with one intermission until 27 May at 59E59 Theaters (59 E Fifty-Ninth St.). For tickets call 212-279-4200 or visit online at http://www.59e59.org/boxoffice.php