Alan Ayckbourn makes my head spin. He is prolific, current and never without his rapier. He tosses his characters into a clothes dryer and releases them to tumble about on their own. Well, not really on their own, for before Ayckbourn sets pen to paper he has plotted the path these characters will take. Not that there are no surprises. For this he relies on his skill as a casting director and the partnership that his actors create with one another, the play, and the audience. Arrivals and Departures is roughly his 77th play, but Ayckbourn has stopped keeping official track. He has better things to do and miles to go before he sleeps.
Those familiar with Ayckbourn will know that time and its illusions are his best chums. Here he makes excellent use of them. The time is 2013, the place is a London train station where Quentin (Bill Champion) is the officer in charge of the SSDO (Strategic Simulated Distractional Operations Unit) that is in place to arrest a terrorist suspect by the code name Cerastes. That these bumbling characters could pull off such a feat as blending in or “merging” is blatantly suspect from the very beginning. Babies are held by their feet. Suitcases are completely empty and weightless. Inappropriate groping occurs with every rehearsal – and there are many.
Into this mash up Ayckbourn introduces Esme “Ez” (Elizabeth Boag) who is a 5 year veteran of the force currently on probation for conduct unbecoming an officer. She is resentful of everything with which she comes in contact. The main object of her contempt is Barry (Kim Wall) a parking ticket officer who has been brought in to ID the suspect to whom he gave a ticket sometime earlier. Cerastes fled the scene and nearly ran Barry down. It is the sort of thing that would make a person remember a face, says Barry.
Actually Barry says quite a lot. He opens his mouth and words tumble out like a waterfall. For Ez, this litany is maddening beyond words. When Barry asks if she has ever killed someone, her studied response is “There’s always a first time.” While she is babysitting Barry, Ez is also reliving her past. It is not pretty, nor are the people in it.
In the second act, it is all reversed. The play re-starts with right and left reversed. Barry enters as before, but when he begins one of his chatty bits we are transported into his past. His travels are no prettier that those of Ez, although they are particularly poignant because this is a man who was always aiming to please and do well by others.
Because this is Ayckbourn, you know not to count on anything working out until the final curtain. And he does not disappoint. Although the last moments of the play strain credulity (which may be rectified with time) we are still left thinking about fate and the unpredictability of life. Walk carefully Ayckbourn is telling us – as he always has – you never know what is around that next corner.
The performances here are nearly seamless – 15 actors dealing with zero wing space by the by is amazing – with Kim Wall giving a particularly affecting performance as Barry. Bill Campion’s steadfast and myopic devotion to his mission is the measuring stick against which all other characters’ intentions are measured. And I must offer a special nod to Sarah Parks who as Hilary, the mother of Ez’s fiancé, treads thin ice with a delicacy that takes your breath.
This is a splendid celebration of Ayckbourn and the world that he has created here on this planet. He surrounds himself with actors who can illuminate the characters that Ayckbourn continually discovers living inside his head. It is a little bit of Heaven on Earth. We are the beneficiaries.
Get there if you can find a ticket!!
Arrivals & Departures Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn
WITH: Elizabeth Boag (Ez), Rachel Caffrey (Esme/Girlfriend/Daisy), Bill Champion (Quentin), Russell Dixon (Charles/Jess/Husband), Sarah Parks (Mother/Hilary/Pauline), Emily Pithon (Tourist/Debs/Daisy), Ben Porter (Sherwin/Norman/Son/Cerastes), James Powell (Student/Freddie/Suspect/Young Barry), Richard Stacey (Chaplin/Clive/Wisby/Rob), Sarah Stanley (Nadine/Lily/Wife), Kim Wall (Barry), Gracey Brouillard or Genevieve Beirne (Young Esme), and Vivianne Brouillard or Phoebe Beirne (Young Daisy).
Sets and costumes by Jane Bee Brown; lighting by Tigger Johnson; production stage manager, Sue Volans; fight director, Kate Waters. Stephen Joseph Theater Production, Chris Monks, artistic director; Stephen Wood, executive director; presented by 59E59 Theaters as part of Brits Off Broadway; Elysabeth Kleinhans, artistic director; Brian Beirne, managing director; Peter Tear, executive producer. At the 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, Manhattan, 212-279-4200, 59e59.org. Through June 29. Running time: 2 hour 30 minutes.