Confusions and Hero's Welcome
The British dramatist Alan Ayckbourn returns to 59E59 Theaters with two New York premieres.
After 79 plays, you'd think a writer would start losing his touch. But as Alan Ayckbourn proves in his tremendous new drama Hero's Welcome, he's just as wily and incisive now as he was in the early days of his career, when he was penning the likes of Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests.
Hero's Welcome is being presented in repertory with a much earlier Ayckbourn work, Confusions, as part of this year's Brits Off-Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters. The two, which the author directs, couldn't be more different. Confusions, written in 1974, is a series of interconnected one-act playlets. Hero's Welcome, first performed in 2015, tells a single, powerful story from three different perspectives. And yet, 40 years apart, the two works are strikingly similar as both deal with how the battle of the sexes always leads to destruction.
Confusions was written to showcase the company members of the Library Theatre in Scarborough, England. Ayckbourn's goal was to astonish audiences by showing how cunning actors could change characters right before everyone's eyes. A frazzled mother begins to treat her visiting neighbors like her disobedient children. Her absent husband drunkenly attempts to bed an attractive woman he meets in a hotel bar. That bar's waiter, meanwhile, not only eavesdrops on this conversation but also overhears a political couple fighting about their failing marriage. The wife from that exchange is the guest of honor at an afternoon tea party, with disastrous results. Finally, five strangers on park benches attempt to ignore one another, but it's not as easy as it seems.
With this production, Ayckbourn achieves his original goal. The five actors, Elizabeth Boag, Charlotte Harwood, Stephen Billington, Richard Stacey, and Russell Dixon, brilliantly transform themselves into each role with a mere change of costume (Michael Holt is the production designer, providing perfectly shaggy attire and sets). Expert farceurs, they draw huge belly laughs from the play's centerpiece, Gosforth's Fête, which proves the highlight of the evening. While there's a dusty quality to it (the porno-groove incidental Muzak doesn't help), it's solidly enjoyable.
Not an ounce of dust is found on Hero's Welcome, which only proves that 41 years later, Ayckbourn is still an inventive master craftsman. At the center of the work is Murray (Richard Stacey), a soldier returning from war to the hometown he left decades earlier under dubious circumstances. He's newly married to Madrababacascabuna (Evelyn Hoskins), who speaks only the tongue of the unspecified foreign country where Murray was fighting.
Ayckbourn adds more depth to this tale by exploring not only the life of Murray and Baba (as she's called), but the way they connect with the people back home. His former best pal, Brad (Stephen Billington), is fiercely competitive in a sexual nature and verbally abusive to his wife, Kara (Charlotte Harwood). Murray's bitter ex-fiancée, Alice (Elizabeth Boag), is the town's mayor, and married to the model-train-obsessed Derek (Russell Dixon). As tensions in each relationship bubble to the surface, Murray's presence unknowingly becomes the cause of health problems, marital conflicts, and cold-blooded murder.
The writing blends Ayckbourn's signature style of menacing darkness underneath uproarious situational comedy. It's an excellent, compelling look at human resilience in the face of terror, and the things people are willing to do to make each other both miserable and happy. The performances are top-notch, with Hoskins' strong-willed Baba and Billington's purely evil Brad making the biggest impressions. Only Dixon feels like an odd person out, a decade or two older than his character should be, but charming nonetheless.
For Ayckbourn fans, the two productions, both New York premieres, are essential viewing. Those looking to see only one have a choice: frothy comedy or intense drama. Either way, this residency proves that Ayckbourn still can create a compelling theatrical universe, even as he and his prodigious output push 80.