Stage Review

Ayckbourn Ensemble

AYCKBOURN ENSEMBLE Sarah Stanley, Kim Wall, Bill Champion, and Elizabeth Boag
Image credit: Andrew Higgins
AYCKBOURN ENSEMBLE Sarah Stanley, Kim Wall, Bill Champion, and Elizabeth Boag

Details Lead Performances: Elizabeth Boag and Kim Wall; Writer: Alan Ayckbourn; Director: Alan Ayckbourn; Genre: Comedy

I have a bone to pick with Alan Ayckbourn. Like clockwork, every two years the British playwright has been bringing his works from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England, to Off Broadway's 59E59 for its Brits Off Broadway festival. First it was the bleakly beautiful 54-scene Private Fears in Public Places in 2005; next, the astonishing two-actor, 10-role, eight-play cycle Intimate Exchanges (2007). My Wonderful Day (in 2009) in Neighborhood Watch (in 2011) followed—and nothing until now! We had to wait three whole years for another Ayckbourn fix, which might as well be a lifetime for an American fan. (The man has written 78 full-length plays, but we're only getting them biannually. Meanwhile, every time you sneeze someone else is doing King Lear.)

Fortunately, we've been more than generously compensated for our longer-than-average wait with the Ayckbourn Ensemble of three shows: a full-length world premiere (Arrivals & Departures); a New York premiere (1992's Time of My Life); and the world premiere of Farcicals, a double bill of two one-acts. All are running in repertory, with the same company, at 59E59 through June 29. Our theatergoing cup runneth over.

Arrivals & Departures, a memory play, emerges as the most challenging of the bunch, packed with forward-moving flashbacks: In a busy London rail station, a group of gun-toting officers (or lawmen of some sort) stage a chaotic scene to trap an elusive serpent-like criminal named Cerastes. On hand are a chatty small-town traffic warden, Barry (the wonderfully bumbling Kim Wall)—the only person who's actually seen the suspect—and a recalcitrant soldier, Ez (Elizabeth Boag), who's charged with the unenviable task of babysitting Barry. While Barry rabbits on about life in Yorkshire, we get glimpses of Ez's broken background. After a flurry of police-like activity, Ayckbourn leaves us hanging at intermission—when he starts over and flips everything: The flashback scenes are Barry's (his home life, incidentally, is nothing like what you expected) and actors who previously faced left now face right. The cleverness is mind-blowing—as is the surprisingly emotional ending.

The superbly structured Time of My Life takes its title rather literally, starting with a birthday party for Laura (Sarah Parks) hosted by her husband, Gerry (Russell Dixon), then flashing back in time with their son Adam (James Powell) and his girlfriend, Maureen (Rachel Caffrey), then jumping forward with their other son Glyn (Richard Stacey) and his wife Stephanie (Emily Pithon). All the scenes take place in a vaguely ethnic restaurant (someone orders ''crimpledoos''), presided over by a series of thick-accented waiters in shaggy wigs, all of whom are played by the tireless Ben Porter. The best bits: seeing the beautiful Betrayal-style evolution of the relationship between low-key Adam and big-haired, high-heeled Maureen, not to mention their sweetly awkward beginning (they meet because of a misunderstanding—so very Ayckbourn).

Arrivals and Time are both rather bleak: Death, divorce, adultery, and embezzlement all make appearances. Farcicals, however, is two one-acts of pure silliness. ''Chloë With Love'' involves two married couples, one very horny husband (Bill Champion), a wife disguised in a stripper wig and a Looney Tunes accent (Sarah Stanley), and a trouser-dropping incident. ''The Kidderminster Affair'' features a live barbecue, improper use of a lettuce leaf, and an unsuspecting chap with a lap full of picnic fixings. As the gathering's host, Reggie (Arrivals' Kim Wall), says wistfully: ''British sense of humor. Nothing like it.'' There certainly is not. Thank goodness!

Arrivals & Departures: B; Time of My Life: A–; Farcicals: B+

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Originally posted Jun 11, 2014