Paxton Whitehead and Cecilia Hart in Time of My Life
(© T Charles Erickson)
Paxton Whitehead and Cecilia Hart in Time of My Life
(© T Charles Erickson)
The Westport Country Playhouse powers-that-be know a good thing when they see it. Obviously pleased with how John Tillinger treated Alan Ayckbourn's Relatively Speaking last summer, they invited the director back for another go-round on Ayckbourn's Time of My Life, which proves to be one of his best works.

This time, Paxton Whitehead, James Waterston, Cecilia Hart and Geneva Carr -- all of whom worked on Relatively Speaking -- join Jason Antoon, Carson Elrod, and Seana Kofoed in polishing Ayckbourn's 1992 comedy to a high sheen. While the playwright is primarily considered a comedy writer -- one might even say a writer of tense comedies -- the tension experienced throughout Time of My Life is enough to have spectators eventually popping Xanax.

Gerry (Whitehead) and Laura (Hart), who are celebrating her 54th birthday, are feting older son Glyn (Waterston), his just-reconciled wife Stephanie (Carr), younger son Adam (Elrod), and his hairdresser-fiancee Maureen (Kofoed) at the Essa De Calvi, a restaurant of unspecified European cuisine. As Ayckbourn's title hints, the night's meant to be a happy time. Laura, however, hasn't got a good word for anyone; Glyn isn't visibly convinced reconciliation is the right thing for him; and Adam isn't comfortable introducing his nervous intended to the folks. So dinner isn't the whopping success it was hoped to be -- despite the cheerful ministrations of waiter Tuto (Antoon).

Before Gerry and Laura toddle inebriatedly off into the night and into a harsh turn of events, Ayckbourn begins inserting multiple scenes that take place at tables on the left and right of James Noone's quasi-exotic, subtly satiric set. At one table, Adam and Maureen go back in time through their courtship to the night it began. At another, Glyn and Stephanie lurch into the future and its less-than-conciliatory effect on their unsteady relationship.

In juggling with time as a theatrical conceit, Ayckbourn lifts a time-tested device from such playwrights as J.B. Priestley and Harold Pinter, and the gloomy implications of the script do seem more Priestleyesque than Pinteresque in that what seems a potentially happy time is in retrospect revealed as anything but straight-forwardly jolly. Furthermore, Ayckbourn waxes mighty cynical in his assessment of enduring marital and romantic unions. For example, in a scene where Gerry and Laura discuss her infidelity, Laura describes their lasting liaison as predominantly a business arrangement. This sequence coming amid the general hullabaloo gives crucial weight to Time of My Life.

Throughout the dinner party and subsequent time scotch-hopping, the ensemble plays with such expertise that each of them deserves to be considered first among equals. By now, Whitehead has befuddlement down to a T. Hart never rounds off Laura's hard edges as unloving wife and mother. Waterston, who gets better with every role he takes on, is rightly cool-to-cold as the womanizing, heartless Glyn. Carr supplies the well-meaning Stephanie with the called-for nuances suggesting a woman others see as dull. Elrod is hyperkinetically solicitous and lost in appropriate measures as Adam. Kofoed -- a stitch in Joan Greenwood's notions of the wrong frock for every occasion -- steers well clear of the caricature that Maureen could be.

Yet, if anyone threatens to wrest the play from the others, it's Antoon, who isn't only the mellifluous Tuto but keeps rushing through the set's many entrances as one of three other servers and one brandy-loving proprietor. (What Antoon goes through backstage could undoubtedly be its own playlet.)

Incidentally, the play's materialization in Westport -- a suburb once the butt of jokes about faithless liaisons -- has a resonance it might not have in other communities. Moreover, with Relatively Speaking and Time of My Life, one can only hope an indigenous Ayckbourn-in-Westport company is being established under Tillinger's guidance. If so, I can't wait to see how it honors the master's repertoire next time.