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A CurtainUp Review
Confusions and A Hero's Welcome
By Elyse Sommer
The Festival's Double Bill Spans 40 years of Alan Ayckbourn's Amazingly Prolific CareerAlan Ayckbourn wrote Confusions when he was in his early thirties and on the cusp of his remarkably prolific career as a playwright and director. The five connected one-acts weren't super hits like his most famous play, The Norman Conquests, but like all his plays, Confusions had a life beyond the Scarborough Theater actors for whom he wrote it and a London production. However, its current run at 59E59 Theaters is the first ever New York City production. It's a period piece, but interesting for the way it contains the seeds of his style and ideas ready to burst into full bloom.
By pairing the 40-year-old Confusions with the world premiere of A Hero's Welcome, Ayckbourn's many fans have a chance to see some common threads running through his entire oeuvre which now exceeds his age (76)— notably, the gray shades beneath even his most comic plays, wives trapped in marriages to unloving or boring men, and his penchant for playful staging.
While Confusions is made up of five one-acts with some twenty different roles for five actors. Hero's Welcome is a full-length play with just one actor briefly double cast. However, though the plot revolves around three couples and their past and present interactions, it also evokes a feeling of three separate stories, especially since Mr. Ayckbourn has employed a previously used technique of stucturing the script to play out on a single set divided into three separate locations for fluid back and forth navigation by the actors.
Though tickets can be bought separately for each show, it's a great opportunity to see both Ayckbourn's early and current work and watch this terrific ensemble seamlessly inhabit a variety of characters. If you have time for both, I'd recommend seeing Confusions first as I did.
Mother Figure," the opening piece has the smallest cast, Lucy, the main character, is a mother whose traveling salesman husband is away so much that she's pretty much functioning a single mother intercting only very young children. Consequently she's so exhausted that she doesn't even pick up the phone, which results in the husband's asking the couple next door to look in on her. With their arrival we see that her child-centric isolated life has affected her ability to differentiate between talking to adults and young children, so she treats the domineering husband as a nasty child to be taught a lesson.
In the second piece, "Drinking Companion," the playwright set up the play-to-play connection with the reappearance of a previous character in the piece that follows. In this case, we actually meet two characters who are part of the first play's plot: Lucy's only mentioned husband Harry and the bullying Terry. Stephen Billington is now a Waiter. Richard Stacy gives a brilliant performance as the lonely salseman trying to seduce a young lady to use the key to his room, but she's who's only interested in getting away from him.
Billington's Waiter is so funny in "Drinking Companion that you'll be glad that his character will carry over into the next and best play, "Between Mouthfuls." Here he serves and overhears two couples with disintegrating marriages. Mr. and Mrs. Pearce are at one table, "Martin who works for him and Polly, his wife at the other. Martin sees their being in the same restaurant the Pearces as an opportunity to socializze with his boss. Not so Polly, since she's been having an affair with Pearce.
Russell Dixon's Mr.Pearce morphs from pompous, adulterous husband into the title character of "Gosforth's Fête," a village celebration in which everything that could go wrong, does. Mrs. Pearce is the linking character, with her angry wife in the previous scene now the guest of honor at the disaster prone celebration. I found this a letdown after the delightful separate tables piece. It also went on too long, which was also true of the daisy chain windup piece that found the entire cast on park benches, each pontificating about life's vagaries but refusing to talk to or listen to each other. Though a bit too schematic and long-winded, it does make for a neat wrap-up.
Unlike Hero's Welcome which creates three different locations on a single set, there's a lot of refurnishing required between each act. And so, a well-deserved round of applause for the energetic all female stage management trio.
Richard Stacey who was especially outstanding as the traveling salesman desperate for company in Confusions' "Drinking Companion," is believable and touching as the soldier whose medal winning rescue of children trapped in a burning building in Baba's country results in his hometown's welcoming him back as a hero. As it turns out that hero's welcome is something of a bitter pill for Alice (Elizabeth Hoag), the recently appointed mayor and Brad (Stephen Billington) who figured importantly in Murray's less than heroic departure from the town seventeen years earlier. That departure ended Murray's childhood friendship with the rich but competive Brad. It seems Brad loved Alice, but Alice and Murray loved each other. This triangular situation ended with Alice left at the altar. While what's past is past for Murray, that's not been the case for Alice and Brad
Here's the scenario of what happens after the opening interview of the returning hero and his young bride: The action moves back and forth between Baba and Murray's temporary home in a hotel, the living room of the elegant manor home of Brad and his wife Kara (Charlotte Harwood) and the kitchen of the closer to town residence occupied by Alice and her loving but model railroad obseessed husband Derek (Russell Dixon).
It doesn't take many swings through designer Michael Holt's clever all-in-one set to realize that Murray and Baba's love story finds no echo in either of the other marriages. Alice is an emotionally fragile, uptight woman who can barely tolerate her devoted but boring husband. Brad is so sarcastic and mean to his wife, that he makes his obnoxious husband in the opening one-act of confusions seem like a sweetheart. Besides indulging in mean-spirited verbal shots, he also spends lots of time with a shotgun in the unseen acreage outside his front door. (That shotgun may well alert many audience members of Chekhov's often bringing a gun on stage early on in a play as a symbolic omen).
Though the Baba initially is at sea in an English speaking world — her dialogue in her native language is made up by the playwright, and not an actual language— but she instinctively picks up on his old friends' hostile feelings. And her settling into herso, this child-like young woman learns to live with the trauma of her past to and support Murray protectress and accounts for my calling her the true hero of this play. As Paul Allen describes her character in an article about Ayckbourn in the program "she is a woman "who is absolutely capable of rescuing happiness from disaster." The fact that this is not true of the other characters. makes this both a human tragedy and an exhilarating love story. This ix of sweet and sour makes for a satisfyingly complex several hours of theater.
Links to other Ayckbourn plays presented as part of the Brits Off-Broadway Festival.
My Wonderful Day
Private Fears Public Places
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Confusions and Hero's Welcome
Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourne
Cast: Stephen Billington (Terry, Waiter, Stewart Ernest in Confusions; Brad in Hero's Welcome), Elizabeth Boag (Lucy, Bernice, Mrs. Pearce, Beryl in Confusions; Alice in Hero's Welcome), Russell Dixon (Mr. Pearce, Gosforth, Arthur in Confusions; Derek in Hero's Welcome, Evelyn Hoskins (Madrababacascabuna[Baba] in Hero's Welcome), Charlotte Harwood (Rosemary, Paula, Polly, Milly, Doreen in Confusions; Kara/Simone in Hero's Welcome), Richard Stacey (Harry, Martin, Vicar, Charles in Confusions; Murray in Hero's Welcome).
Designer: Micheal Holt
Lighting: Jason Taylor
Brits Off-Broadway at 59e59 Street
From 5/28/16; closing 7/03/16.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at June 2nd and 4th press previews
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