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A CurtainUp Review
Communicating Doors

When a play this joyously silly also has a thought hiding behind its antics, it's bound to be a terrific evening at the theater. Add to the mix a dose of suspense (of a sort of reverse nature), some excellent acting and a top-notch creative team and you have Alan Ayckbourn's latest arrival from England, Communicating Doors.

I confess I didn't have a clue what "communicating doors" were until I saw this show. Lest you be similarly handicapped, they are those pairs of doors that connect adjoining hotel rooms internally. In David Gallo's fastidiously designed if not-at-all playful evocation of a London hotel suite, they fancifully become revolving doors into other decades.

The sheer quantity of Ayckbourn's plays (even though playwriting is a second job for him, he's written over fifty), not to mention his label as "commercial" in Britain, tempts one to dismiss the craftsmanship evident in his writing. He has an uncanny ability to take circumstances that would be complicated and clunky in other hands and make them play out easily. (We learn the ins and outs of time travel so casually, we feel we were experts all along.) Similarly, while others are called avant garde for writing complex plays that take structural risks, Ayckbourn tackles them with such facility he is considered mainstream.

Communicating Doors begins and ends in the year 2018. As the play opens, an ailing Reece Wells (Tom Beckett), wealthy businessman and owner of the Regal Hotel, is in his suite with Julian Goodman (Gerrit Graham), his friend and business partner. Reece has called for the services of a self-styled "special sexual consultant" (a leather clad dominatrix) by the name of Poopay (Mary-Louise Parker). After Julian departs, we learn that the only service Reece desires of Poopay is that she witness a document. In anticipation of his impending death, he wants to confess all of the nefarious acts that he and Julian have committed. (These range from simple dishonesty to the murder of both of his wives.)

When Julian returns and Poopay needs to make a quick exit, she uses the communicating door. Instead of taking her into the room next door, it returns her to the same room in the year 1998 when it was occupied by Reece's second wife, Ruella (Patricia Hodges). It is the very night on which, according to the confession, Ruella is to be thrown from the balcony by Julian. When Ruella and Poopay (her real name, we learn, is Phoebe) figure out what has happened, they realize they must get her out of there. When Ruella passes through the door, however, she does not go forward in time; she goes back, to 1978, when the same suite is occupied by Reece and his first wife, Jessica (Candy Buckley), on their wedding night, seven years before the time when Reece confesses she was killed.

Returning to 1998, Ruella and Phoebe realize they must act now to avert history. I won't spoil the fun by describing the adventures and misadventures that follow except to say that they are on par with the very best escapades of Lucy and Ethel. In the midst of the hilarity, Ayckbourn, not known for making points of much depth, has deposited a very poignant one about the fragility of time and the value of coincidence.

From its casting to its direction and design, this production has been lavished with riches. The much-heralded return of Mary-Louise Parker to the off-Broadway stage (after her stunning if vastly different portrayal in How I Learned to Drive) demonstrates just how funny, and versatile, she can be. Whereas she convincingly handled a wide range of ages in Drive, her age in this play about time travel remains static. Here, her challenge is to shift persona credibly, eclipsing a sleazy bravado with shadows of immature vulnerability. She succeeds. Except for a bit of difficulty with her dialect (with which she will likely become more comfortable as she settles into the role), she is excellent.

But the real triumph is her cohort, Patricia Hodges. Hodges is thrillingly perfect, milking every farcical nuance, squeezing out each ounce of comedy, grasping each absurdity and not letting go. She knows she owns this role, and cedes it to no one. Yet she also knows what not to take, and thus never gets greedy. It's a memorable performance.

Most of the remainder of the cast is also exceptionally good. David McCallum punctuates the proceedings with his own comic subtext as the inept but dedicated hotel security detective, Harold Palmer. Candy Buckley does a very effective turn as Jessica, and Tom Beckett, whose Reece must traverse the broadest range of any of the characters, becomes better with each variation we see.  Gerrit Graham is the cast's only weak note, lumbering about as the unrepentent Julian.

Christopher Ashley packages the play precisely and coherently -- essential in keeping the time periods from colliding into one another. Happily, he is also smart enough to let the material speak for itself, and has not tinkered too much. It's a wonderful, happy-go-lucky way to begin a new theater season.

One ticket-buying recommendation: the geometry of the Variety Arts Theatre is such that, for this staging at least, back is more desirable than front, assuming the middle is not available

Absent Friends
By Jeeves (DC)
Taking Steps (Berkshires)
Things We Do For Love
Woman In Mind

by Alan Ayckbourn 
Directed by Christopher Ashley 
starring Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Hodges, with David McCallum, Tom Beckett, Candy Buckley and Gerrit Graham 
Scenic Design: David Gallo 
Costume Design: Jess Goldstein 
Lighting Design: Donald Holder 
Sound Design and Original Music: John Gromada 
Variety Arts Theatre, 110 Third Avenue(13/14) (212) 239 - 6200 
opened August 20 
Reviewed by Les Gutman August 21, 1998
©Copyright August 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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