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A CurtainUp Review
The Ayckbourn Ensemble at Brits Off Broadway
By Elyse Sommer
Alan Ayckbourn's output is pretty amazing. The number of his plays (77) now exceeds his age (75). What's amazing is not just his productivity but the cleverness and freshness of the work, especially his way with blending humor and darkness and inventive way of structuring his stories. Whenever the annual Brits Off-Broadway Festival includes something by the prolific master of funny-sad plays, it's a festival highlight. The 2007 Brits Off Broadway's Intimate Exchanges ( Review ) was a fiendishly witty example of his way with connecting a group of plays within a single framing device, but with each from a different point of view. Of course, the fun of this like his similarly constructed and most successful Norman Conquests was to catch all those viewpoints. With this year's trio of more stand-alone in rep plays it doesn't really matter if you see one or all three productions. The trio on offer is actually a quartet since Farcicals combines two one-acts into one evening.
Below reviews of two of the Ensembles three play, plus production notes and a picture for Farcicals which I didn't have time to cover.
Arrivals and Departures
Time of my Life
Arrivals and Departures
But while it's advisable to lower your expectations, A&D offers sufficient payoffs to make it well worth seeing. The exploration of overlapping memories about events in the same time frame, may not be quite as ingeniously compatible as in previous uses of this structural device, but Ez (Elizabeth Boag) and Barry (Kim Wall), the two unlikely protagonists do connect for an ultimately moving Ayckbournesque shift from humor into darkness. Think of the plot that brings two strangers to a London railway station as a double decker sandwich, with the pair's memories as the filling.
What keeps us engaged in the rather convoluted framing plot and the detours into Ez (a.k.a. Esme) and Barry's flashbacks to the relationships and problems that situate both at crossroads in their lives are the powerful performances from the two leads. The large ensemble (Some dozen actors playing more than thiry characters) enliven the often static moments. The performances overall are fine, though some of the characters they have to play are hopelessly stereotypical. James Powell and Sarah Parks get to do the most nuanced characters and they make the most of them.
The sandwich or framing device entails an anti-terrorist operation at a north London railroad station by a vaguely connected to the government unit going by the name of SSDO (Strategic Simulated Distractional Operations). Its pompous and buffoonish head, Captain-acting-as-Major Quentin Sexton (Bill Champion), has devised a scheme to have an obviously incompetent troupe of men and women disguised as ordinary travelers capture a terrorist with the code name of Cerastes.
To insure the success of this farcical scheme, Sexton has had a helicopter fly in Wall's Barry who in his duties as a Yorkshire traffic warden got a close look at Cerastes when he issued him a parking ticket. Unbeknownst to Quentin, the Army has assigned a young officer to be the witness's minder. This is, of course Ez whose apparently been charged with this duty as a punishment for behavior likely to end a career that means much to her. Naturally she's a less than happy camper at that railroad station and unreceptive to the talkative Barry's getting better acquainted overtures.
The back and forth between Quentin's wild last minute practice drills for his sure to fail operation and Ez and Barry's snapshot recollections is easy enough to follow. However, there's a jarring incompatibility between the farcical Keystone Kops scenes and the much darker Ez and Barry story line that ultimately takes over. That darkness is implied throughout by Jan Bee Brown's stark set of three benches encircled by a wall of black drapes with openings for entrances.
The fact that the play's structure requires a certain amount of repetition in both plot and dialogue makes for a somewhat too static and slow moving two and a half hours. Still, Ez and Barry do merge, as Quentin keeps telling them to do, and Ayckbourn does succeed in also bringing together what is essentially two plays: the terrorist farce and the memory play. I won't spoil things with more details. Suffice it to say that the climax makes this "union" happen and is quite touching.
Beckett left Estragon and Vladimir waiting and clueless about whether Godot will come and who he is — and the audience along with them. Ez and Barry's more conclusive finale nevertheless confirms the dramatically satisfying possibilities of having two people just sit around waiting and talking.
Time Of My Life
let's not miss out on this one, all right?
While written more than two decades before Arrivals & Departures both have much in common: Each explores issues of family, love, happiness and unhappiness and gives Ayckbourn a chance to indulge his interest in certain locations and playing with time.
Arrivals. . played out in a railroad station and used flashbacks to combine a farcical current action plot element with more personal and darker themes. In Time of My Life the setting is a restaurant. The large table at the center and two small tables at either sides at first anticipate a variation of Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables.
But in typical Ayckbourn fashion, the tables take us to three differently timed stories: The large main table upstage is where a family party hosted by family patriarch Gerry (Russell Dixon) to celebrate his wife Laura's (Sarah Parks) 59th birthday in the play's 1992 present. This in real time celebration which lasts just a few hours, frequently shifts to one of the side tables for scenes detailing the Stratton Family's two young couples'relationships — the marital saga of Stephanie(Emily Pithon) and Glyn (Richard Stacey) moves forward several years beyond the party, the romance of Glyn's younger brother Adam (James Powell) and his girl friend Maureen (Rachel Caffrey) moves backward from just before the party to their first date.
Unlike Arrival & Departures' up-to-date tie in to a world beset by terrorists, the emotional and economic problems of self-made entrepreneurs and big spenders like Gerry Stratton though a send-up of the Thatcher era, still manages to feel timely and this is structurally actually the stronger of the two plays.
The Ayckbournesque setup of a festive occasion and happy families who reveal themselves to be far less blessed as they at first seem to be. The insecurities and cruelties of the various characters is beautifully revealed by each cast member. Sarah Parks masterfully captures the matriarch's self-centered, unloving and unlovable personality that is of course at the root of her oldest son's marital and career problems, and her young son's go-nowhere artsy business ventures and love affair with a gorgeous hair dresser who looks like a hooker (an especially delightful performance by Rachel Caffrey.
The problem is that at two and a half hours plus intermission, there comes a time when instead of this happy moment with its darker detours being a totally happy experience for the viewer, becomes a bit tiresome. Ben Porter achieves virtuoso transformations as various different yet oddly not so different looking waiters at the ethnic restaurant that seems an odd choice as the Strattons' favorite eatery. However, while Porters' waiters are comical they are also a case of overkill. Just trimming these appearances could probably eliminate at least ten minutes.
The theatrical craftsmanship is impeccable, from the direction, to Tigger Johnson's lighting that makes this work on a single set, and the spot on costumes, especially for Caffrey's Maureen (I assume the work of designer Jan Bee Brown).
To borrow from Gerry's urging his family to not miss life's happy moments, don't miss out on the many happy moments in any Ayckbourn play and catch at least one of these productions before this fine Ensemble heads back to Great Britain.