Alan Ayckbourn’s crooked smile

In today’s Wall Street Journal I review Ayckbourn Ensemble, a triple bill of Alan Ayckbourn plays currently running off Broadway. Here’s an excerpt.

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Ever since Alan Ayckbourn’s “Private Fears in Public Places” came to New York in 2005, 59E59 Theaters’ annual “Brits Off Broadway” festival has made Mr. Ayckbourn’s work a reasonably regular part of its bill of fare. Now the festival is presenting three of his plays in rotating repertory under the portmanteau title of “Ayckbourn Ensemble,” all of them directed by the playwright himself and performed by his own company, Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre. Two of the plays, “Arrivals & Departures” and “Farcicals,” are world premieres and the third, “Time of My Life,” is being seen in New York for the first time. That makes “Ayckbourn Ensemble” a major event by definition, since Mr. Ayckbourn, whom many critics on both sides of the Atlantic long dismissed as a prolific purveyor of flyweight farces, is now increasingly recognized as a playwright of real stature, one of the very best we have.

ayckbourn-ensembleMr. Ayckbourn’s genius lies in his ability to write what you might call “sad comedies,” uproariously funny farce-flavored plays that are at second glance deeply serious, at times despairing portraits of modern middle-class life and its discontents. On occasion, as in “Arrivals & Departures,” he puts the despair at center stage, and what results is a play that at bottom can no longer be called a comedy at all. The scene is a London train platform where a preposterously ineffectual trap is being laid for a terrorist. Enter a sullen young woman (Elizabeth Boag) and an amiable old duffer (Kim Wall) whose minds are elsewhere, and to whose vagrant memories the members of the audience are privy. As the dragnet tightens, we learn about the piercing sorrows of their little lives, and what began as a comedy of incompetent bureaucracy becomes a tragedy that ends in shocking blackness….

Even when the tone of an Ayckbourn play is unabashedly frothy, seriousness is never very far from the surface. “Farcicals,” for instance, is a double bill of brilliantly concise one-act farces about two suburban couples (played by Ms. Boag, Bill Champion, Sarah Stanley and Mr. Wall) whose marriages are frayed around the edges. The laughter is near-continuous, especially in “Chloë With Love,” in which Ms. Stanley plays a demoralized frump who dresses up as a sex-crazed vamp in order to excite her wayward spouse. But Mr. Ayckbourn never lets you forget that both marriages really are in trouble—and that it’s the men, as usual in his woman-centric plays, who deserve the bulk of the blame….

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Read the whole thing here.

The trailer for Arrivals & Departures:

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