Friday, June 10, 2016

Hero’s Welcome (Brits Off Broadway)

By Harry Forbes

Murray (Richard Stacey), a returning war hero (after rescuing dozens of children from a burning hospital), returns with a foreign bride Baba (Evelyn Hoskins) to his home town after 17 years. But it seems Murray had left under a cloud all those years before, and past resentments and romantic entanglements make his return considerably less than the cause for celebration he hopes it will be; in fact, his reappearance proves a major catalyst for trouble.

This is the premise of Alan Ayckbourn’s 79th play, running in rep with his 1974 “Confusions," as part of the annual Brits Off Broadway festival. Though ostensibly a comedy, it’s a dark one, and the themes here are fairly serious.

Still, the narrative, with its astutely drawn characters make for a highly absorbing evening, and Ayckbourn has come up with some ingenious twists along the way. There’s Alice (Elizabeth Boag), the town’s mayor, who’d been jilted by Murray years before, and her infantile toy train-obsessed husband Derek (Russell Dixon). There’s Murray’s alleged best friend Brad (Stephen Billington), a truly loathsome misogynist (and a liar and a cheat) who inwardly envies the honors bestowed on his former pal and covets his attractive bride, and Brad’s resolutely cheerful but unhappy wife Kara (warmly sympathetic Charlotte Harwood) who has become inured to her husband’s nasty barbs but admits at one point that she feels a virtual prisoner in her home.

Murray’s unpopular plans to restore The Bird of Prey, a dilapidated hotel which had been run by his family, sets in motion an unfortunate series of events. In fact, this is the kind of play where you get the queasy feeling bad things are going to happen…and they do.

But, as always, Ayckbourn’s writing is razor sharp, and his delineation of character masterful.

Performances are quite brilliant, and it’s great fun to see the cast of “Confusions” (who demonstrated their amazing versatility in that series of five playlets) again playing roles that are so very different. This full-length work gives each of them time to build a full characterization. New to “Hero’s Welcome” is Hoskins who gives a most appealing performance.

There are many excellent moments including a particularly moving scene in the second act between Baba and Alice, sensitively written and superbly played by Boag and Hoskins.

The play does feel a bit long, and though a 2 ½ running time was promised, it ran about a good quarter of an hour longer. But it is a pleasure to report that Ayckbourn is still writing at the top of his considerable game, making this a must-see event, of course.

(59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th St.; (212) 279-4200 or; through July 2)

Photo by Tony Bartholomew: L-R: Stephen Billington and Russell Dixon.
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