by Barbara and Scott Siegel
We recently returned from a emotionally potent production of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Brief History of Women at 59E59, part of the theater complex’s exemplary and long-running annual festival of UK plays titled “Brits Off Broadway.” Upon exiting the theater, it dawned on us that over an extraordinary period of time, the vast majority of the plays we have seen at 59E59 — with three theaters in constant use — have consistently been of the highest caliber. That’s not to say there haven’t been artistic flops, but the ratio of hits to misses during all these years has been astonishing.
So, kudos to 59E59’s President and Founding Artistic Director, Elysabeth Kleinhans, the recently departed Executive Producer, Peter Tear, who so brilliantly programmed the complex from its start, and the new Artistic Director, Val Day, who has managed to largely meet the high bar that Kleinhans and Tear established over the long and distinguished history of this latter day East Side theater institution.
Let’s focus, for a moment, on the aforementioned Brits Off Broadway festival. While major plays and musicals from the West End may transfer to Broadway, the Brits Off Broadway imports come from all over the UK, representing the serious, excellent work being done across The Pond in smaller theaters that are, for all intents and purposes, much like our Off Broadway. These are generally small cast, low overhead shows that depend upon great writing, provocative stories, and excellent acting to make their impact.
Another way to think about this series of plays is to think of them as the equivalent of the foreign films that come to New York. We aren’t seeing a cross-section of world cinema; we are seeing the best of world cinema — because only the cream is going to get here. The same is true of the Brits Off Broadway shows; these are the best small plays circulating in the UK and, thanks to 59E59, we get to see them.
And circling back to A Brief History of Women, this is a deeply touching, understated play that follows the life of a man from early adulthood to long after his retirement. From 1925 to 1985, it chronicles the profound ways in which women changed his life, while at the same time showing us how women, themselves, gained power and influence from generation to generation. Antony Eden, as the man in question, gives a quietly stunning performance; his reactive acting is a wonder to watch.
And to think, that without 59E59 regularly bringing in Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, like this one, every year in the Brits Off Broadway Festival, we would have otherwise never had the chance to see it.