Paul Kemp and Alexandra Mathie in Private Fears in Public Places
(Photo © Tony Bartholomew)
Paul Kemp and Alexandra Mathie in
Private Fears in Public Places
(Photo © Tony Bartholomew)
For the first time, Sir Alan Ayckbourn has brought over his company of actors from the British-based Stephen Joseph Theatre (of which Ayckbourn is artistic director), and New Yorkers should feel blessed that the playwright-director has finally decided to share the wealth. The six-person ensemble of Private Fears in Public Places is absolute perfection, bringing warmth, humor, and sadness to Ayckbourn's exquisite dark comedy.

The play tells the story of six individuals in present-day London, their lives interconnected through circumstance. We first meet Nicola (Melanie Gutteridge), who is being shown a prospective apartment by realtor Stewart (Paul Kemp); she was supposed to be joined in her search by fiancé Dan (Paul Thornley) but he's out drinking and talking with bartender Ambrose (Adrian McLoughlin). Stewart returns to his office and engages in a bit of flirtation with co-worker Charlotte (Alexandra Mathie), who loans him a videotape that shows a lot more than what he was promised. He watches it while his sister Imogen (Sarah Moyle) is off meeting men who have answered her personal ad.

As the play progresses, the plot threads become ever more intertwined; Charlottte is also the night caregiver for Ambrose's invalid father, while Dan meets up with Imogen after he and Nicola attempt a trial separation. But the action is easy to follow and Ayckbourn fleshes out each of his characters, sometimes in surprising ways. A good example is Thornley's Dan. At first, he comes across as an irresponsible drunk who is dragging Nicola down; he ignores her feelings, whines about wanting a study in their new apartment, and doesn't even attempt to look for a new job. However, he is more pitiable and understandable when we come to know more about him: In one of many one-sided bar conversations that he has with Ambrose, we learn that Dan's a former army officer who took the fall for improper behavior by men under his command. Coming from a long line of career military men, he has been disowned by his father and set adrift without a clear direction. We also see a different side of him emerge while he's on a date with Imogen; here, Dan is genuinely funny and caring, not simply the louse he previously appeared to be.

Ayckbourn paces the play briskly yet lingers on certain moments with impeccably timed pauses. Both Kemp and Mathie command laughs without having to say a word; their scenes together are notable for sexual tension and hilariously awkward interactions. The rest of the cast also impresses. Gutteridge is riveting in her portrayal of a strong, capable woman whose heart is breaking. McLoughlin's understated performance is compelling for the things he does not say but which are nevertheless clearly communicated beneath his actual utterances. Moyle and Thornley make a delightfully mismatched pair; a scene in which they've both had a little too much to drink is at once hilarious and tender.

Pip Leckenby's scenic design is simple and elegant, establishing the play's multiple locations with just a few set pieces such as a bar, a couple of tables, a desk, and an armchair. Mick Hughes's lighting is likewise effective, as are the costumes by Christine Wall. John Pattison's original music eases transitions and helps set the mood for several of the scenes.

The dialogue is crisp and very, very funny. While some of the humor is situational, the majority of the comedy is character-driven; Ayckbourn paints often heart-rending portraits of lonely people who attempt to make connections to those around them but end up feeling more isolated than ever. (An exception to this is Mathie's character, who functions mainly as a catalyst for the emotional struggles of a couple of the others.) The writing demonstrates a keen intelligence and understanding of human behavior.

This American premiere is being presented as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, which provides a wonderful opportunity for New York audiences to experience some extremely fine work. Private Fears in Public Places, Ayckbourn's 67th play, further cements the prolific playwright's reputation as Britain's foremost contemporary master of comedy.