NY Theater Reviews By Myra Chanin
The most misused word of our decade is brilliant, which should be applied only to sparkling-with-originality creations of an Einstein or Mozart, but currently also describes drivel produced by boldface semi-entities. So one might well ask, is there anyone currently creating work that’s brilliant? You betcha! Not once or twice but time after time! Alan Ayckbourn, the contemplative, hilarious, honest, touching, wise and witty British playwright cum director (or vice versa) who juxtaposes time, space, events, stupidity and heartbreak into verbal tapestries that run the gamut from anguish and hilarity.
Where can you see his works performed? Always at the Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, sometimes in London’s West End, but until June 29th at 59E59’s Brits Off-Broadway. Ayckbourn himself is directing exemplary British actors – Psst! Yanks can’t master the accents or the timing! – In three of the almost fourscore plays he’s written during his 75 years. The stroke Ayckbourn suffered in 2006 hasn’t slowed him down enough to be noticeable. At the time, he “hoped to be on his feet, at least on his right foot, in six months” and was. Fortunately, the part of his brain that thinks, writes, and directs comedy was unaffected. You may remember that Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquest, another trio of plays, won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play in 2009.
Ayckbourn’s intricately plotted tales involve three-dimensional, non-stereotypical working class characters thrust into surrealistic situations that display their marital and class conflicts but are packed with laughter, tears and plenty of food for thought. He stretches, combines and even sometimes mangles time, events and space, compressing them into a dramatic fourth dimension. Ayckbourn’s concepts are so original and his dialog is so drolly on point, I was certain he’d been a Cambridge classmate of Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, et al, but Ayckbourn took the road less traveled, left school at the age 17 and made life his university, eventually landing a temp job in 1957 at the Scarborough Library Theater where he found a fatherly mentor in its artistic director Stephen Joseph. After Joseph’s death, Ayckbourn took over the theater, renamed it in his mentor’s honor and now premieres and directs all his new plays there before sending them out into the world.
Arrivals & Departures takes place in a train station, where a 21st century version of a Restoration fop – a political flunky – has devised an intricate rodeo designed to catch a viper terrorist. The fop has costumed soldiers as ordinary people who will appear in the station when the terrorist arrives and catch him. There is one catch in the plan. No one knows what the terrorist looks like except Barry, a meter man on his way to the station by helicopter, who gave the terrorist a parking ticket day before. Ez, a troubled woman soldier, is there to babysit Barry. The first act is interspersed with the thought and memories that spring to her mind until his train arrives, someone is captured, but as Barry points out, not the terrorist.
The second act begins when Barry appears in the train station (as he did in the first act) and the first act dialog is replayed but this time interspersed with Barry’s memories rather than Ez’s which reveal the suffering Barry has endured in his life which, like Ez’s, was a life in transit in torment.
Farcicals consists of two one-act farces both of which take place in the same garden with a quartet of people who may be more than friends. If you enjoy hearing an entire audience howl with laughter along with you, don’t miss this one. This comic masterpiece is subtly directed by Ayckbourn to wring every bit of laughter out of your soul. Kim Wall, an amazing actor, who plays Barry in Arrivals and Departures, is differently marvelous in Farcicals. It’s well worth every cent of your disposable income to watch Sarah Stanley make sheep’s eyes at her husband!
Time of My Life was a bit more difficult because the British country working class accents were harder to understand. In this play, Ayckbourn compresses time and place once again. The basic event is a birthday party in a restaurant for a mother. Also attending is her getting-less-and-less successful businessman husband; Glyn, their older son and his wife who are together again after he left her for someone else, and Adam, their younger son, also Mom’s favorite, who has brought along his Mom-doesn’t-know-she’s-his fiancée, a really low class hairdresser. There are three tables on stage. The one in the center at which they are all originally seated represents time present. At the table for two on stage right, Adam and Maureen reenact past events that led to her being at the mother’s party. At a table on stage left, Glyn and his wife enact out the future. It’s all very intriguing and surrealistic but has the least endearing characters of the trio.
(click on all photos to enlarge)