Ayesha Antoine in My Wonderful Day
(© Robert Day)
Ayesha Antoine in My Wonderful Day
(© Robert Day)
Alan Ayckbourn's new bittersweet comedy My Wonderful Day, now at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, is among his best and most touching works -- which really says something considering it is his 73rd play!

The production, which is directed by the playwright, is also notable for the astonishing central performance by 28-year-old actress Ayesha Antoine. She plays 9-year-old Winnie, who is brought along to work one Tuesday by her pregnant cleaning-lady mom Laverne (Petra Letang). Winnie isn't in school because of a sore throat; but, at Laverne's insistence, she must do her homework all the same -- writing an essay headed "My Wonderful Day." In addition, Tuesdays are the day Laverne and Winnie have agreed they'll speak only French as practice for what Laverne envisions as their immigration to her native Martinique once she gives birth to the son she's naming Jericho Alexander Samson.

Once Ayckbourn sets up the simple but hardly simple-minded premise, he brings Winnie face-to-face with several adults behaving extremely badly over a few hilarious hours. Homeowner Kevin (Terence Booth) is estranged from wife Paula (Alexandra Mathie) and having an affair with bimboesque assistant Tiffany (Ruth Gibson), while visiting colleague Josh (Paul Kemp) is having his own paternal crisis while feeling ravenous. When not interrupted by her elders to do things like read aloud from Frances Hodgson Burnett's Secret Garden, Winnie keeps scribbling her "Wonderful Day" assignment.

Ayckbourn wants to show the world of adults as seen through a child's innocent eyes. He's not the first to take the approach, but he's one of the funniest. Character-based laughs keep coming even as anxiety accumulates about the burdens children are asked to bear by the supposedly mature. For instance, Winnie knows that eager Kevin and willing Tiffany have gone off alone to the bedroom, but how should she respond when Paula, returning unexpectedly, asks about her husband's whereabouts?

Dressed in a neat school uniform (designed by Jennie Boyer), Antoine affects a 9-year-old's body English -- the pigeon-toed stance, the jittery, Mary-Janes-shod foot -- without ever slipping into offensive cliche. As great as her performance is, she never overshadows the other actors, most of them veteran Ayckbourn players. Booth, barely looking in Winnie's direction, is a thoroughly unlikable, insensitive Kevin. Letang's Laverne is a woman doing her cheerful best as a single mother trying to raise her child right. Gibson's Tiffany is rightly lightweight in her cheap satin blouse and flaming red hair. Kemp's Josh is particularly funny when trying to coax Winnie into giving him one of the candy bars she has in her backpack, and Mathie is an amusingly mood-shifting Paula.

In short, Ayckbourn wouldn't have been wide of the mark if he'd simply titled this work My Wonderful Play.