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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Confusions (Brits Off Broadway)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s another delicious import from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England, home of the premieres of most of Alan Ayckbourn’s impressive output of plays. His most recent work, “Hero’s Welcome,” which originated there, will be opening at 59E59 tonight, but this is a revival of a much earlier work from 1974, written around the time of his earliest successes such as “The Norman Conquests” and “Absurd Person Singular.”

Five short plays – three in the first half, two in the second – give five wonderfully talented actors the chance to play a variety of roles in the expert way we have long come to expect from the English. The first four are connected by at least one character from the previous playlet, and the last – five loners relating their troubles to the utterly uninterested person on the next park bench – has thematic and geographic connection.

In the first, “Mother Figure,” harried mother Lucy (Elizabeth Boag) with three offstage children, is visited by her next door neighbors (Charlotte Harwood and Stephen Billington) after they receive a query from her travelling salesman husband who has been unable to reach her. Lucy is so programmed into her parenting role that she treats the couple like children and, surprisingly, they eventually respond in kind.

In “Drinking Companion,” Lucy’s philandering husband (priceless Richard Stacey) tries to lure two perfume saleswomen (Harwood, Boag) to his room, plying them with drinks from the seen-it-all-before waiter (Billington).

In “Between Mouthfuls,” the same waiter serves two couples – a well-to-do older pair (Boag and Russell Dixon) and a younger duo (Stacey and Harwood), the workaholic husband of which works for the older man. Ayckbourn’s clever conceit here is that we only hear what the waiter does as he approaches each table to take their orders, and the stretches of alternating dialogue from one couple to the other are in amusing sync.

In “Gosforth’s Fete,” the older woman from the last play -- the town Councilor -- comes to a tented church gala despite increasingly inclement weather and a hugely embarrassing revelation unintentionally transmitted on the loud speaker system by garrulous pub owner Gosforth (Dixon), and sweet young woman Milly (Harwood). A befuddled vicar (Stacey) and Milly’s disconcerted scoutmaster boyfriend (Billington) add to the fun.

This is the most farcical of the bunch, with everything going wildly awry, providing a stark contrast to the aforementioned “A Talk in the Park” which is rather short on belly laughs, but high on the poignant scale, and shows the more serious side of Ayckbourn’s delineation of human nature.

Michael Holt’s set design, complemented by Jason Taylor’s lighting, prove as versatile as the players in conveying the different settings.

All in all, this is rather minor Ayckbourn, but there is still enormous pleasure to be had in appreciating the brilliance of his character writing – he nails these universally recognizable character types and their foibles to a tee – and the impressive talent of the actors who morph effortlessly from role to role.

(59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th St.; (212) 279-4200 or www.59e59.org; through July 3)

Photo by Tony Bartholomew: Richard Stacey in CONFUSIONS, written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn, part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Print this post

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