Every two years, playwright/director Alan Ayckbourn and cast members from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England, make a pilgrimage to New York to take part in 59E59 Theaters's Brits Off Broadway festival. Ayckbourn uses it as an occasion to present the American premiere of his latest play. This season, the prolific playwright has given us three (or four, depending on how you count). Under the banner title "Ayckbourn Ensemble," audiences have the opportunity to see Arrivals & Departures, Ayckbourn's 77th full-length work, along with the New York premiere of his time-bending 1992 drama Time of My Life, and a double bill of silly comedies collectively titled Farcicals. This experience is an embarrassment of riches for Ayckbourn's ardent fans — a cup that proverbially runneth over. Each of the productions is, in a word, superb.
Arrivals & Departures is a surprisingly heavy 11-character play set in a railway terminal where Major Quentin Sexton (Bill Champion) has staged an elaborate trap for a wanted terrorist who is a mere hour or so away by train. Major Sexton is soon joined by Ez (Elizabeth Boag), a sullen soldier who is tasked with babysitting Barry (Kim Wall), a slow-talking country traffic cop who witnessed an incident involving the suspect. As the unlikely pair bonds over Barry's incessant jabbering, the audience is treated to their individual back stories. We learn that Ez, formely called Esme, is the daughter of a deceased soldier, and is quiet and jittery for a reason. Barry, meanwhile, has a few secrets of his own. Ayckbourn's play deftly blends comedy and drama (though the shock ending isn't particularly satisfying), and while it's not necessary top-drawer, it's merely very good, and goes to show that the 75-year-old author's mind is nimble as ever.
A stronger work is Time of My Life, which takes place, initially, on the 59th birthday of Laura Stratton (Sarah Parks). After the first scene, Ayckbourn starts bending time to present the stories of each family member. He follows Laura and her husband, Gerry (Russell Dixon), in real time over the course of a few hours in the restaurant where the party was held, as she reveals a drunken secret that changes the course of their marriage. Juxtaposed with this is an examination of their eldest son Glyn's (Richard Stacey) relationship with his wife, Stephanie (Emily Pithon), over the course of the two following years. A third strand of plot involves the youngest son, Adam (James Powell), and moves backward to reveal how his relationship with his girlfriend, Maureen (Rachel Caffrey), has disintegrated since they first met. Swiftly directed by the playwright, each cast member, a list that includes Ben Porter in a tour de force as a variety of waiters, turns in a heartbreaking performance that hammers home Ayckbourn's central thesis, expressed at the play's very end: Enjoy the moments that you can "positively identify as being among the happy moments," as you never know when you'll have one again.
Happy moments do indeed abound in Farcicals, the banner title for the short comedies Chloë With Love and The Kidderminster Affair. These two insignificant but deliriously hilarious works once again feature Boag, Champion, and Wall, along with Sarah Stanley (who also appeared in Arrivals). The quartet plays a pair of rather mismatched couples who end up in a series of compromising positions with one another as they discuss love, marriage, and infidelity — as they engage in a food fight. Ayckbourn's skill for wordplay is on excellent display in Chloë, which features one of the smartest, slyly funniest discussions about wine ever to be seen onstage.
The fun of seeing Ayckbourn's plays in rapid succession is seeing the themes in his work; Time of My Life and Arrivals & Departures might have been written two decades apart, but they share similar ideas of family and tradition, love and loss. Expertly staged by the playwright, the plays are perfectly cast, though one must call out Boag and Wall for their performances in the former. In the hands of a lesser actress, Ez in Arrivals could just be sullen, but Boag adds a great deal of gravitas within her dead eyes and slumped shoulders. Similarly, Wall's Barry is extremely recognizable as that guy you never want to associate with: the close talker with a nervous laugh, a person you do your best to avoid at all costs. It's jaw-droppingly realistic, and like Ayckbourn's plays themselves, it provides a real sucker punch that you don't see coming.