A master of familial dysfunction, Alan Ayckbourn remains as prolific and pointed as ever. Two of his lighter works are kicking off the Brits Off-Broadway fest at 59E59 Theaters: Farcicals and Time of My Life. (The theater is also hosting a more serious Ayckbourn, the U.S. premiere of Arrivals and Departures.)
The playwright continues to explore the boulevard bourgeois comedy in Farcicals, where the satire is breezy cynicism, delivered with a light touch rather than hard-edged. Or what he calls "amuse-bouches." Two couples meet for a barbecue. Lottie (Sarah Stanley) is worried her husband Teddy (Bill Champion) has strayed. She confides her suspicions to an old-school friend, the imperious Penny (Elizabeth Boag), who treats her husband Reggie (a terrifically bemused Kim Wall) with an officious air.
These are funny, relatable characters -- the husbands dismiss their wives frivolity, but chitchat about endless trivialities. The wives concoct a ridiculous scheme to test Teddy's fidelity -- with surprising results. It's all silly and good fun, but the overarching deceit underscores a larger message about the assumed morality of suburbanites. The little swipes -- "dig deep and you're sure to find something -- at least that's my hope" -- muses Penny about Reggie, suggest marriage has long parted from romance.
Happily, it's all wrapped in a fast-paced farce, with a mistaken identity thrown in for good measure, smartly directed and performed by an excellent quartet with pitch-perfect timing. Ayckbourn, who doubles as writer and director on all three productions, turns up the heat -- literally -- on the comedy --and it sizzles.
Time of My Life has genuine moments of comic relief, but it's a darker, more thoughtful effort. Infidelity, family pathology, loneliness and missed connections are addressed in a substantial work that plays successfully with time. It opens at a family dinner, celebrating Laura Stratton's 54th birthday. Laura (an excellent Sarah Parks) is an opinionated mother of two grown sons: Glyn (Richard Stacey), who she ignores, and Adam (James Powell), who she adores.
Both men seek her approval, much to the consternation of Glyn's wife Steph (Emily Pithon) and Adam's girlfriend Maureen (Rachel Caffrey). Time of My Life takes place in a local Mediterranean restaurant in northern England, where the waiters (all wonderfully played by Ben Porter) are a comic delight.
Though different in temperament, Adam and Glyn share a mother-obsession. Glyn works in the family business and is grappling with his own marital woes. Adam simply bounces from one career idea to the next; what his mother applauds as sensitivity is really an extended adolescence. Maureen, and especially Steph, are far more insightful about the complexity of the Arthur Miller-like family dynamics.
The dinner turns out to be a major event in the life of the Strattons, especially for husband Gerry (Russell Dixon), who discovers a long-kept secret. Watching the characters navigate this tricky terrain is compelling.
Ayckbourn's raw honesty, laced with both humor and pathos, is skillfully wrought. Inspired by the work of JB Priestly, Time of My Life neatly shifts time from present to past, allowing us to peer into the hope and sadness of expectation, which can be as life-changing as it is heartbreaking. His cast is as inspired as the material.
Photo by Andrew Higgens