by Nita Congress · June 11, 2014
Nita Congress comments on Ayckbourn Ensemble: Arrivals & Departures and Farcicals playing at 59E59 Theaters
“She’s coming. She’s just scraping trifle off the carpet in there.”
That line from The Kidderminster Affair, the second half of the two-play set Farcicals, more or less sums up everything Ayckbourn. Loopy logic and an indication that what’s occurring offstage is every bit as key—and likely every bit as funny—as what we’re seeing onstage.
And what’s onstage is very, very funny indeed.
Alan Ayckbourn is master of the dazzling light comedy mixed of equal parts farce, slapstick, and wit. He is also master of complicated jigsaw play formats featuring interlocking times, text, and places. In honor of the master’s 75th birthday, this year’s Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters features three Ayckbourn pieces in repertory: Arrivals & Departures, Time of My Life, and Farcicals: A Double Bill of Frivolous Comedies. The two I saw are very much of the canon: funny, frothy, and satisfying.
I have loved Ayckbourn’s work since the ‘70s, when I first saw the delicious and delightful The Norman Conquests on PBS. This fiendishly clever tour-de-force is three separate plays featuring the same six characters over the same weekend, with each play’s action occurring in a different part of the house. Similarly, Farcicals features two hapless couples bobbing and weaving—in two quite different ways, but with quite similar results—around the theme of suspected marital infidelity in the course of two backyard dinner parties.
As in The Norman Conquests, the keenest delights of the piece lie in our immediately recognizing these characters through the playwright’s deft dialogue. Here’s the acerbic force-to-be-reckoned-with Penny, on assuring drab Lottie that her makeover will be unremarked by Penny’s husband: “Reggie barely recognizes anybody. He stands in front of the mirror some mornings looking faintly puzzled.” And here’s Reggie extolling the British sense of humor to Teddy, Lottie’s husband: “You know I sometimes have nightmares where I dream I’m foreign and then I wake up and I think, thank God!”
And no other playwright can so amusingly render the banality of ordinary small talk. When Ez, in Arrivals & Departures, irritably decries Barry’s endless nattering, asking him, “How long can you keep talking about the weather?,” he mildly responds,
Well, indefinitely, really. Never gets boring does the weather, eh? Just when you’ve finished talking about it, it all changes. I tell you, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else but here. Nothing to talk about to strangers, otherwise, is there? No, in my opinion it’s one of the things that makes the country great is the weather.More extendedly, after criticizing their wives’ ability to chatter on about handbags, Reggie and Teddy then proceed to fill two pages of dialogue with inane remarks about wine. (Choice snippet from Reggie on its body: “Mmmm. Yes, I think I can taste pistachios. With overtones of prune.” With this rejoinder from Teddy: “Yes that as well. That as well. Plenty of prune in there. Gives it that full body.”)
But a funny thing about Ayckbourn’s characters: despite all the humor, they’re not really funny in and of themselves, nor are their situations and problems. This point is made explicitly by Arrivals & Departures, which is a surprisingly sober and highly moving play. Although grounded in a very Ayckbourn milieu of parochial pompousness as the Strategic Simulated Distractional Operations Unit rehearses a complicated set of scenarios to trap a dangerous terrorist—and set in a very Ayckbourn parallel play structure, with Acts I and II being essentially identical, but embedding the memories of first Ez and then Barry—the play explores the inner life of its protagonists rather than leaving us to chuckle over their outward faults and foibles.
Barry is a familiar Ayckbourn character: he is brother to Reg in The Norman Conquests and to Reggie in Farcicals. He is a good-natured chump, the butt of jokes, and a bit of a bore with his trivial interests. (Sharply asks Ez of Barry: “So what made you decide to become a traffic warden? Childhood ambition, was it?”) But his side of the Arrivals & Departures story, told in flashback memories of significant comings and goings in his life to this point, show the man behind that clownish exterior: a man of unappreciated common decency, kindness, and compassion. Similarly, the events that created the waspish, troubled Ez are revealed to us, even as she fiercely hides them from all others. Kim Wall and Elizabeth Boag play Barry and Ez (and Reggie and Penny); their ability—and the playwright’s—to give us the humanity and depth of these characters is more than commendable, and brings home fresh revelations of the very fine line between comedy and tragedy, and the need to approach both—as Ayckbourn does—with warmth and compassion, both on the stage and in life.