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First Nighter: A Gotta-See Alan Ayckbourn Festival

06/12/2014 04:12 am ET | Updated Aug 11, 2014

The big fact about 75-year-old Alan Ayckbourn is that he's written 78--count 'em, 78--plays during his long career, including two, actually three, receiving world premieres these weeks at 59E59 Theaters. It's what you might call an Alan Ayckbourn mini-festival to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first production.

Looked at another way, you could say he has so many works available either for premieres or revivals that at almost any time an Ayckbourn fan or Ayckbourn newbie might be able to encounter a new or old Ayckbourn work. Right now in London, for instance, his A Small Family Business is on view. The latter will be broadcast in internationally HD on June 12 (check NTLive.com for more details).

The first of the 59E59 three, all directed by Ayckbourn, is the world premiere of Arrivals & Departures. I can't say that of the nearly four score Ayckbourn plays, it's the darkest, but that's only because I haven't seen them all.

I can say that by the final fade-out this new one is extremely dark, even though it starts out light as a July day. Captain Quentin Sexton (Bill Champion), an Army officer running a sting set up to ensnare a suspected terrorist, is drilling a group of actors meant to be ordinary people milling at a train station. They're all comically hopeless at their assigned tasks.

Into their midst come Barry Hawkins (Kim Wall), a traffic warden present because he can identity the suspect, and Esmé "Ez" Swain (Elizabeth Boag), a 23-year-old soldier sent to protect Hawkins. It's their two stories Ayckbourn wants to tell as they more or less interact with each other. So he includes intermittent flashbacks to their earlier lives while they wait for the entrapment charade to swing into motion.

Barry, a gabby and seemingly cheerful chap, tries to chat up Ez, who's proud of her career but preoccupied by a troubled private life. As Sexton and troupe swirl around them, so do their disturbing memories, and the more their memories accumulate--hers throughout the first act, his throughout the second--the unhappier they're revealed to be. Moreover, there's the threat of worse to come when the suspect known as Cerastes (Ben Porter) finally arrives.

Through the years, Ayckbourn, often called on these shores the British Neil Simon, has been of two minds about people's natures. Here, however, he's ready to declare himself an out-and-out pessimist. It's a sometimes funny but ultimately bleak view, maximized by Ayckbourn's direction as well as by the superb performance from Wall, Boag and the rest of the Ayckbourn-savvy troupe.
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In a note about Time of My Life, a 1992 play having its New York premiere, Ayckbourn mentions, as he has before, his debt to J. B. Priestley, who loved to fool around with time in his works and perhaps most effectively in the only occasionally revived these days, Time and the Conways.

As his title hints, Ayckbourn has his way with time throughout this exercise, and again refuses to report that time is being easy on humankind whether past, present or future, certainly not where Gerry Stratton (Russell Dixon), a successful builder whose company is verging on financial difficulties, and his wife Laura (Sarah Parks) are concerned.

In the present, it's Laura's birthday, and she, Gerry, their sons Glyn (Richard Stacey) and Adam (James Powell), Glyn's wife Stephanie (Emily Pithon) and Adam's new girlfriend Maureen (Rachel Caffrey), a hairdresser, have gathered at the family's favorite restaurant.

Their table for six--where waiters (all played by Ben Porter) manfully serve--is placed upstage on Jan Bee Brown's simple set. Downstage at the audience's right is a table for two where Adam and Maureen sit in that same restaurant at intervals and encounter that same array of waiters. There, they relive in reverse their meeting and eventual engagement. Downstage at the audience's left is a table for two where Glyn and Stephanie repair at other intervals. There, they etch their rocky relationship as it unfolds in the couple of years following Laura's upstage birthday dinner.

Ayckbourn's interest, as it usually is, runs to the particulars of a family's dysfunction. Gerry and Laura have lost sight of their mutual love. Gerry favors Glyn, who holds down a job in the Stratton business, but he doesn't begin to understand Adam, who can't find a career but is currently publishing an arts newsletter.

Laura sees possibilities in Adam but has never liked Glyn or Stephanie. Nonetheless she's worked to reunite them after a fling Glyn had. Neither does Laura take a shine to Maureen, whom she immediately and incorrectly labels an alcoholic.

The boys have their own misgivings, Glyn about remaining monogamous and Adam about what he wants to make of himself. Stephanie is the one always trying to keep things running smoothly, while Maureen is aware she doesn't know how to present herself. She also doesn't see the way to overcome her taste for garish apparel.

Ayckbourn's great gift, on display throughout Time of My Life, is his keen ear and eye for how people behave under stress. Furthermore, he implies that stress is the only condition under which people ever get to behave. When he's at work, as he is yet again here with his expert actors, he makes his argument absolutely convincing.
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When Ayckbourn noticed he was bringing 11 actors on this fun jaunt, he also realized that while all of them appear in Arrivals & Departures, only seven are needed for Time of My Life. To deal fairly with the unused four, he decided to write something for them. He tossed off Farcicals, which is made up of two one-acts--Chloe With Love and The Kidderminster Affair--involving the same four characters.

Note that when Ayckbourn tosses something like these off in (rumor has it) a week, it can be the theatrical equivalent of blowing a couple of many-colored feathers in the air and watching them float until they safely hit ground.

In both Chloe With Love and The Kidderminster Affair, good-looking lawn-mower expert (don't ask, just enjoy) Teddy (Bill Champion) and plain and worried wife Lottie (Sarah Stanley) are best friends with down-to-earth car salesman Reggie (Kim Wall) and attractive wife Penny (Elizabeth Boag). They decorate, often hilariously, the plays in the Reggie-Penny backyard first and then in the Teddy-Lottie backyard.

To get them flustered over their marriages and possible infidelities and to rustle up his own brand of non-stop hilarity, Ayckbourn borrows from odds and ends of Cosi Fan Tutte, The Guardsman, Harold Pinter's The Lovers and No Sex Please, We're British. Yet again, his deft, not to say, farcical direction of his actors is top-drawer.

Incidentally, I've reviewed the three evenings (or matinees) in the order I attended them. They don't have to be seen in that order. If Farcicals--wherein Ayckbourn implies that hope lies in humor--comes last, it can be regarded as a lively coda. If it's seen first, it's a tasty appetizer. If it's seen in the middle, it's a palate refreshing sorbet. The real point is to see a master at work in all three.