Friday, November 20, 2009
By Harry Forbes
In the wake of last season’s glorious “The Norman Conquests,” it’s especially gratifying to be presented with a brand new play by its peerless author, Alan Ayckbourn, and to find that 26 years after writing that masterful trilogy, he’s still in fine fettle.
The play – his 73rd -- is hot off the press as it were, having been directly imported to New York from Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre Company in Scarborough, England where it premiered only last month. And it’s his third play to be presented as part of the annual Brits Off Broadway festival.
“My Wonderful Day,” though not a trilogy or a two-parter like some of Ayckbourn’s other works, proves every bit as ingenious, exploring, as it does, the world of adults from the unique perspective of a child.
The child in question is Winnie, the eight-going-on-nine year old daughter of Laverne (Petra Letang), housecleaner to smarmy, self-centered TV host Kevin (Terence Booth). She’s played by the extraordinary Ayesha Antoine, who is, in fact, 28 years old. Her impersonation is so authentic that if you didn’t check your program, and see her hefty list of credits, you’d assume she was at most, 12 or 13.
Single mother Laverne brings Winnie to work as the girl professes to not feeling well. Laverne is large with child, whom she has already named Jericho Alexander Samson (“That should keep him out of trouble, shouldn’t it?” a character later wryly observes). After the birth, Laverne fantasizes about moving her family to Martinique.
In preparation, Laverne insists that she and Winnie speak nothing but French one day each week. “Oui, mamam,” dutifully answers little Winnie repeatedly.
Laverne parks Winnie on the sofa to do her homework: an essay on her “most wonderful day.” With that setup, you just know the girl will get plenty of fodder before the play is done.
When Laverne’s water breaks, Winnie is left in the care of Kevin, his kind-hearted secretary and (we learn) mistress Tiffany (Ruth Gibson), and hung-over best friend and business partner Josh (Paul Kemp).
Both Kevin and Josh assume the girl speaks no English, leading to all kinds of candid revelations in front of Winnie who takes it all in as she writes in her notebook. Eventually, Kevin’s fearsome wife Paula (Alexandra Mathie) returns home just as, wouldn’t you know, Kevin and Tiffany have retired to the bedroom upstairs.
Ayckbourn already establishes the girl as a smart, sensitive child so we understand she is far from oblivious to the extraordinary happenings around her, and thanks to Antoine’s performance – wide-eyed, slack-jawed languor – we seem to know precisely what she’s thinking, silent and uncommunicative though she is.
Ayckbourn’s brilliant conceit gives a delicious twist to a situation that, in other hands, might read as conventional farce, while his customary compassion for his characters is strongly in evidence. Prime example: the divorced Josh’s tearful outpouring of emotion about his own daughter (beautifully played by Kemp)
Much as Strindberg broke ground with long stretches of naturalistic silence, Ayckbourn pushes the envelope with a lengthy kitchen scene that has Winnie laboriously reading “The Secret Garden” to Josh who soon succumbs to snoring sleep.
The cast is uniformly superb. Mathie is particularly hilarious as the no-nonsense wife, all empathy for the child until she discovers her precious sofa has been damaged. After learning it was where Laverne’s water broke, she’s suddenly full of heartfelt apology about her “appalling temper.”
“You have seen the last of my childish, thoughtless tantrums,” she assures Winnie. With her husband upstairs with Tiffany, Ayckbourn makes sure we know that is a promise soon to be broken.
Roger Glossop’s set is a model of clever economy. With three playing areas -- left to right, a kitchen, living room, and office -- one gets the scope of the whole of Kevin’s house thanks to Mick Hughes’ clever lighting scheme.
As you’d expect, Ayckbourn has directed his play (performed without an interval) masterfully.
(Brits Off Broadway, 59E59 Theaters, 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com; through Dec. 13) Print this post