By Tulis McCall
What often happens at an Alan Ayckbourn play is that people leave the theatre talking about how “clever” a writer he is. Indeed, he is that. But he is so very much more. Confusions now at 59E59 as part of their Brits Off Broadway Series is another brilliant example of that whole lot more.
In his most excellent book, The Crafty Art of Playmaking, Ayckbourn tells us that the job of a creative team is to find the tragedy in the comedy and the humor on the tragedy. When you apply this POV to his work, the layers of his plays explode into a panoply.
Confusions is five interlinked one-act plays. It was written 40 years prior to it’s sibling Hero’s Welcome, and the two are playing in rep as part of the Brits Off Broadway annual festival. The splendid cast – Stephen Billington, Elizabeth Boag, Russell Dixon, Charlotte Harwood and Richard Stacey – plays may parts.
In Mother Figure Lucy (Boag) is a busy Mum with only enough time on her hands to move about the house erasing sticky finger marks and putting up the toys into the crib so as not to trip over them. This is because the children have been put to bed. And may or may not be sleeping. Lucy is on a maternal retreat. She does not know when she last spoke with an adult or changed out of her nightgown and robe. Her husband Harry is out of town making sales calls for a clothing line and doing God-Knows-What-Else. His calls have gone unanswered as he hears a mysterious connection followed by the line going dead. This is due to Lucy picking up the receiver and dropping it back into its cradle whenever the phone rings. Harry prevails upon the neighbors to pop in and make certain Lucy is okay. When they do show up, first Rosemary (Harwood) and then her husband Terry (Billington) they get no information other than visible proof. Instead they are drawn into Lucy’s world of juice and biscuits so completely that their personalities undergo more than a bit of regression.
Drinking Companion finds the aforementioned Harry (Stacey) ensconced in the bar of a hotel somewhere in the environs. He is frustrated with the telephone situation and thirsty both for liquor and company. The company shows up in the person of Paula (Harwood) and her co-worker Bernice (Boag). These two are perfume sales people. Life on the road being what it is, they balance accepting a free drink with keeping an arm’s distance from men who talk in order to avoid listening. Like Harry for instance. Stacey does a particularly fine job of walking Harry down the path of inebriation to full on blackout. But before he gets there, a certain waiter (Billington) pockets Harry’s room key and, well, who knows?
That same waiter is the fist to arrive in Between Mouthfuls. This play is set in a dining room that this waiter rules. Silverware is polished; linens are creased; glass ware gleams. Mr. Pearce (Russell Dixon) is a man with a case of crotchety that you can spot a mile off. He views life through squinted eyes and wonders why everything appear askew. Equally odd is his short-tempered and woefully unhappy wife, Mrs. Pearce (Boad) whose default position is resentful. On the other side of the room is Martin (Stacey) and Polly (Harwood), a younger couple having their own serious difficulties. The fulcrum here is the waiter, and each couple is heard only when he is at their table. Ayckbourn knits these two couple’s lives together with excruciating detail and then flips the plot into another playing field at the conclusion.
This same Mrs. Pearce later becomes a City council member, and as such is required to attend Gosforth’s Fête that is slated to be a splendid event for the village. It will have races and games of all sorts. Bands. Presentations by the Boy Scouts. Tea in the afternoon. A speech by the Councilwoman. A grand day all around. Scrumptious. The event, of course, begins to unravel when Milly (Harwood) and the event organizer Gosforth (Dixon) have a very, very, very private conversation at the wrong time with the wrong audio equipment on the wrong setting. The entire event proceeds to slide down a slippery slope, and one by one the townsfolk tumble down the Mad Hatters Hole.
A Talk In The Park feels like all these characters put together and then subdivided. Six people come to the park for peace and quiet the way they like it. This involves shunning some people and sidling up to others. It is a round robin of speaking and not listening that calls to mind all the characters we have met in the previous four plays. Ayckbourn, with the precision of a brain surgeon, has created a collection of short plays with characters whose communication is not communication at all. It is myopic speech-o-fying at its best. For these people the act of listening, to paraphrase Fran Lebowitz, is just waiting for the other person to stop talking. If we are smart, we will see ourselves as compatriots of this lot and leave considering our own lives and relationships. If not, we will simply leave the theatre talking about what a clever writer that is Ayckbourn. Which sounds better to you?
CONFUSIONS Writer/Director Alan Ayckbourn
WITH Stephen Billington, Elizabeth Boag, Russell Dixon, Charlotte Harwood and Richard Stacey
Designer Michael Holt, Lighting Designer Jason Taylor.
2016—59E59 Theaters (Elysabeth Kleinhans, Artistic Director;; Peter Tear, Executive Producer; Brian Beirne, Managing Director is thrilled to welcome the Stephen Joseph Theatre back to Brits Off Broadway with the NYC premieres of HERO’S WELCOME and CONFUSIONS, written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn. The shows run in rep with a general performance schedule of Tuesday – Thursday at 7 PM;; Friday at 8 PM;; Saturday at 2 PM & 8 PM;; Sunday at 3 PM & 7 PM. Please see the performance calendar for the individual show schedules. Single tickets for HERO’S WELCOME and CONFUSIONS are $70 ($49 for 59E59Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to www.59e59.org.