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A CurtainUp Review
"A Brief History Of Women

Houses. They never forget you. They always remember you.— Caroline
From left, Frances Marshall., Laurence Pears., Antony Eden, Laura Matthews., Louise Shuttleworth in a scene from Part 2 of A Brief History Of Women. Photo by Tony Bartholomew
Our London critic Lizzie Loveridge introduced her review of Damsels in Distress with this observation about Alan Ayckbourn: "Maybe it is because of the size of Ayckbourn's oeuvre and the erroneous belief that such quantity cannot bring quality, that it has become fashionable in certain quarters of the business to sneer at Britain's most prolific living playwright as if he were to theater what Barbara Cartland is to romantic novels. Don't listen to these foolishly pretentious creatures!"

That was in 2002, and the amazingly prolific 79-year-old Ayckbourn is still at it, proving that quantity and quality can co-exist. And while he's at it, also disproving the idea that playwrights should never direct their own work.

I've seen and very much enjoyed a fair sampling of Ayckbourn's plays, and some of my favorite ones have been part of the annual Brits Off-Broadway Festival at 59E59's Theater A. There were the memorable 2005 and 2007 Ayckbourn marathons Private Fears In Public Places & *My Wonderful Day-Brits, another triptych under the umbrella title The Ayckbourn Ensemble - and most recently, a something new and something old double header Confusions & Hero's Welcome .

Happily, Mr. Ayckbourn is now back at the Festival, with his latest play—, the 81st—, A Brief History of Women. That title is correct, in that women play a critical role in all four parts, this is really the not so brief history of one man, Anthony Spate, and a house, named for its aristocratic owners, the Kirkridges, over a period of 60 years. While that man is, a very ordinary and unassuming man, each phase of of his life the Kirkbridge Mansion's various permutations, he does become rather inadvertently involved with a woman in each one. And, since each part fast forwards twenty years, you can expect each part to reflect some of the historic changes for the always very English Ayckbourn characters.

Naturally, not every play will be a case of cream rising to the very top of this amazingly large oeuvre (two title which would probably make most cream of the crop lists are Taking Steps & The Norman Conquests). A Brief History of Women would more likely fit into a list of Ayckbourn's more modest gems. But a gem it is since it has some of the common threads that have won Ayckebourn so many fans. A Brief History. . . has a familiar undertow of darkness beneath its comedic surface. The first parts reveal marital abuse beneath the jazz age glitter and the lingering distrust and pain of war. A Brief History. . is also structured in one of Ayckbourn's favorite staging styles: a script intended to play out on a single set that accommodates three or four separate locations for the actors to traverse. They knock on non-existent doors and seamlessly move on to their next character by ending a conversation in midstream.

As usual the playwright, wearing his director's hat, has assembled a splendid team to actualize all those transformations of people and places. For Kirkbridge Mansion that sees Downton Abbey grandeur give way to a boarding school, and then an elegant modern hotel. For the ensemble, all except Antony Eden as Spates, must morph into four or five characters (not counting Eden that's a total of 23!).

Just watching the actors' quick as the perennial wink changes physical and personality changes is great fun (bravo to Kevin Jenkins who does double duty as set and costume designer, and lighting designer Jason Taylor. Even the retooling of the set between each forward move to another time and function for Kirkbridge Manor is a pause that's made additionally refreshing thanks to Composer Simon Slater's lovely incidental music that accompanies the efficient cadre of stagehands.

Actually there's nothing especially new about a large estate doing regular complete turnarounds in terms of its looks and function. Watching Kirkbridge evolve over the play's sixty year time span, brought to mind Cranwell, one of the gilded mansions in the Berkshires. Once the home of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (why hasn't someone written a play about this both famous and infamous puritan?) and by John Sloane, kin to the Vanderbilts who co-owned it around the same time as the first part of A Brief History of Women. Like Kirkbridge Manor, this mansion became a boarding school, then a performing arts space, and is currently a resort hotel which includes luxury condominiums.

What makes this take on a house's ever evolving life strictly Ayckbourn's is the way he has made Spate's a constant presence. He changes his attire, like the rest of the ensemble, and dons a wig in the later scenes, but essentially he is always the same unassuming, deliberately uncharismatic man — whether working as a part-time footman for Lord Kirkbridge, as a teacher or as an administrator. Yet he becomes part of three attractive women's history, and not as result of his initiative but theirs. Like his similarly named character, Antony Eden embodies the man's gentle, likable blandness.

Like other Ayckbourn ensembles I've seen the five actors interacting with Spates through the play's six decades, this cast is more than up to providing the audience with the fun of spotting a previous character's next incarnation. The one with the most opportunities for over-the-top transformations is Russell Dixon as the odious Lord Kirkbridge, the pompous headmaster who warns the footman-turned teacher Spates about his romance with another teacher who's still mourning for the fiance killed in he war and most hilariously as a Panto producer and female performer at the Arts Center Spates is running in Part 3.

You can also expect plenty of surprising turnabouts from the others. The most moving is Frances Marshall as the unhappily married Lady Caroline who recognizes and charmingly rewards the goodness and potential of young Spates, but she also manages to sandwich in two acerbic women between her opening and the touching final scene that brings the histories of Spates, the women in his life — and, of course, that once grand British mansion

So who cares whether this is an A+ Ayckbourn. It is the work of one the contemporary theaters' true treasures still mining his gift for comedies with a subtle soul.

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A Brief History Of Women
Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn. Cast: Russell Dixon (Lord Edward Kirkbridge, Dr. Wyn Williams,Denis Dunbar, Gordon), Antony Eden (Spates), Frances Marshall (Lady Caroline Kirkbridge, Miss Eva Miller, Pat Wriggly, Caroline Seabourne), Laura Matthews (Lady Cynthis, Miss Ursula Brock, Jenny Tyler,Tilly Seabourne Carter), Laurence Pears (Captain Fergus Fluke, Desmond Kennedy,Rory tydor), Louise Shuttleworth (Mrs. Reginald Fluke, Miss Phoebe Long, Gillian Dunbar, Ruby Jensen).
Designer: Kevin Jenkins
Lighting: Jason Taylor
Composer: Simon Slater
Stage Manager: Veronica Aglow
Running Time: Approx 2 1/2 hours, including one intermission
59E59 Theaters
From 4/26/18; opening 5/02/17; closing 5/27/18
Tue, Wed, Thu, Fri at 7:00,Sat at 2:00 & 7:00, Sun at 2:00
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/02/18 press performance

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