Thursday, November 19, 2009

Brits Off Broadway 2009

My Wonderful Day
Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Starring Ayesha Antoine, Terence Booth, Ruth Gibson, Paul Kemp, Petra Letang, Alexandra Mathie
Performances November 11-December 13, 2009

Wolves at the Window
Written by Toby Davies, from stories by Saki
Directed by Thomas Hescott
Starring Booth, Gus Brown, Anna Francolini, Sarah Moyle
Performances November 10-December 6, 2009

59 E 59 Theater, 59 East 59th Street

59 E 59’s annual Brits Off Broadway festival is one of the highlights of the season, off and on Broadway. This year’s edition runs through January 3 and comprises seven new productions, led by the U.S. premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s latest, direct from its world-premiere staging at Ayckbourn’s home base in Scarborough, England.

The festival opened with Wolves at the Window, an adaptation of short stories by the Victorian-era writer Saki (the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro), who combined thrills with laughs while relentlessly skewering high society’s pretentions. Playwright Toby Davies deserves credit for creatively streamlining and juxtaposing them, even though stringing several of these tales together doesn’t automatically make for an enervating theatrical experience.

The ten Saki stories range from the strange to the even stranger, with an undercurrent of eeriness best exemplified by allusions to the title creatures at the close of both acts. The best skits feature animals (a talking cat, a dog being gassed to death), while the funniest shows how to placate unruly children with gory storytelling. On the debit side, a running gag about an inedible breakfast cereal runs out of gas quickly.

Thomas Hescott’s direction is variable: sometimes the momentum (comedic, dramatic or horrific) stalls. Luckily, his quartet of able actors—Gus Brown, Jeremy Booth, Anna Francolini and Sarah Moyle—does its level best to gloss over the thinness of the concept, with Brown particularly good as that aforementioned feline and creepy storyteller.

Much more satisfying, if not up to his best, is My Wonderful Day by the impossibly prolific Alan Ayckbourn. This is his 73rd play, many of which we’ve never seen in New York, but lately we’ve had a treasure trove: in this decade alone, House, Garden and Absurd Person Singular from Manhattan Theater Club; last season, Bedroom Farce off Broadway and the stunning Broadway revival of The Norman Conquests trilogy. Topping them all has been Brits Off Broadway which presented Private Fears in Public Places in 2005, followed two years later by the eight-play Intimate Exchanges, one of the most memorable playgoing experiences of my life.

My Wonderful Day is a more modest Ayckbourn play that doesn’t sacrifice his wonderfully fertile imagination. What it lacks in Ayckbourn’s elegant time-bending structures it compensates for with a rich conceit in varying perspective, namely, its protagonist. Eight-year-old Winnie Barnstairs accompanies her cleaning-lady mum Laverne to a rich couple’s home on a day off from school, where she attempts to finish her homework assignment, “My Wonderful Day,” while dealing with the increasingly childish antics of the adults who come and go.

As always in Ayckbourn’s intelligently conceived farces, wonderful days aren’t easy to come by. First, Winnie’s nine-months pregnant mum badgers her daughter about speaking French—it’s Tuesday, aka “French Day” for Winnie and Laverne—or about moving to Martinique, their homeland. Then the other adults cross Winnie’s path: Kevin, the arrogant, cheating husband; Tiffany, his leggy, willing assistant; Josh, his spineless associate; and Paula, his shrilly strong-willed wife.

After 100 minutes of My Wonderful Day, Winnie will finish her essay, thanks to the lunatic behavior she observes from the adults. Ayckbourn, as is his wont, takes the most obvious comic situations and transforms them into something fresh, a rare gift in these days of cheap, vulgar and routine laughs. Having these British characters butcher the French language (even Paula, ostensibly more fluent than Winnie and Laverne) is amusing not because of the butchery alone but because it’s another wall these people put up around themselves, however inadvertently. Ayckbourn’s best humor emerges from his ability to take an unpromising situation and transform it into honestly rueful, if hilarious, observations on self-deluding behavior.

For example, a ravenously hungry Josh rifles through Winnie’s backpack looking for a chocolate bar when she leaves the room; upon her return, he begins a touchingly self-pitying monologue about his own young daughter. Late in the play, Paula returns home to find Winnie on her precious, expensive sofa, and blows her top thinking she urinated on it; discovering that it was instead Laverne’s water breaking, Paula quickly apologizes, then turns her attention to bringing this mostly quiet but intelligent young girl into her confidence in order to catch her two-timing husband in the act.

Ayckbourn directs My Wonderful Day with masterly control, especially in the interludes when characters track from room to room in what Winnie must see as a maze of a home; kudos also to Mick Hughes’ lighting and Roger Glossop’s set. And his acting troupe doesn’t miss a beat. Terence Booth (Kevin), Ruth Gibson (Tiffany), Paul Kemp (Josh) and Alexandra Mathie (Paula) play ferociously funny variations on the standard characters that populate British farces, while Petra Letang’s Laverne is a smart comic creation who simultaneously exudes lower-class desperation and genuine sweetness.

Ayesha Antoine, a remarkable 28-year-old actress, simply and believably becomes the eight-year-old Winnie, commanding the stage even when she is silent—which she is often—and gives the merest bewildered glances or barely perceptible body language to show us what Winnie is thinking. Most persuasively, Antoine shows how Winnie—an adult trapped inside a child’s body, obviously Ayckbourn’s intent—is far more mature than her elders, an unoriginal conclusion that’s demonstrated with unusual astuteness.

But that’s always been Ayckbourn’s forte. And thanks to his fleet writing and directing, My Wonderful Day is another exquisitely-wrought jewel in a staggering 50-year career.

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