By Myra Chanin
I am a big-time, longtime Alan Aychbourn fan. I particularly love the plays he brings every other year to 59e59’s annual Spring Series Brits Off Broadway, not only because he writes and directs them, but because he brings along a cast of British actors who, like John Cleese, have some unmarked gene that inspires them to rush hither and yon in the most intensely serious but accidentally clumsy fashion, which always results in almost-wet-yourself hilarity that keeps me and most of the audience roaring with unstoppable laughter, while hoping the intermission will occur before it’s too late for my peace of mind to handle whatever portion of my anatomy that needs peace most. Ayckbourn’s comic shambles, to wit, and never has that phrase been more properly applied than to the fourth one-act segment of Confusions entitled Gosforths Fete which depicts a Country Village Fair gone completely berserk with a PA system that blurts out secrets better kept private and a few acts of God that run amuck.
The second Ayckbourn offering of this year’s series, Hero’s Welcome, is his latest and 79th play, written in 2015, 40 years after he wrote Confusions. It’s an ironic play with amusing but bitter elements. The irony is tinged with wisdom-of-the-ages sadness, but it does end on a hopeful note. Basically, it’s a story of three childhood “friends” who grew up in the same village. Each one’s domicile is represented by a different set, one stage left, one stage center and one stage right.
The least elaborate quarters, just a double bed really, represents the home of Murray (Richard Stacey), the hero being welcomed back after 17 years in the army, who plans to make a life in the village for himself and his young bride, Madrababacascabuna (Evelyn Hoskins), whom he met during his most recent deployment somewhere in the Middle East. It was also the site of his heroism. Baba speaks no English, but she’s a pleasant, ambitious, friendly, focused and very pretty girl. We suspect she will probably make a man out of Murray.
When the play opens Murray is being interviewed on the radio by two somewhat petty, snide and narcissistic reporters. On stage right, in a dining room surrounded by toy trains, the pregnant bride-to-be Murray abandoned at the alter when he realized the child in her womb did not contain his DNA, listens to Murray on the radio and laughs. Alice is married to Derek (Russell Dixon) a silly, stupid, untrustworthy contractor, an English male version of a classic yenta who busies himself setting elaborate toy train sets while Alice works her way up to the post of Mayor.
The center stage set is the most stylish. It belongs to the landed gentry, Kara (Charlotte Harwood), and her husband Brad (Stephen Billington), Murray’s upper class boyhood buddy, a narcissistic toff who drinks more than he should, shoots clay pigeons, can’t bear losing and is a womanizer who treats his wife with contempt. Brad was actually the father of Alice’s child and expected Murray, who was also having sex with Alice, to assume the baby was his, do the right thing and take them both off his hands. Fortunately, Murray wised up in time.
Most of these things happened before the play even starts! But don’t worry there are many more twists to come.
Brad and Murray go shooting together. Murray beats Brad which does not sit well with Brad. So Brad bets Alice’s husband, Derek, that he can bed Baba before the fortnight is over. Does he? Doesn’t he? Does it matter? What matters is that everyone in the place except for Baba is always telling lies. What makes the play interesting and worth watching is the down-to-earth decency of Baba, a contemporary version of the noble savage, who’s worth more than all of that lot together, except for Murray, who becomes a real hero thanks to Baba’s influence.
The acting is first rate as is the direction, with twists and turns created by a first rate intelligence. Hero’s Welcome is a play you take home with you, furrow your brow and think about, It’s proof that even at 79, Alan Ayckbourn can still create diverse plays with interesting characters. Anything he writes is well worth seeing!
59 East 59 St. New York, NY
Being performed until July 9th in repertory
Photos: Tony Bartholomew