Wednesday, June 18, 2014

NYC Theater Roundup—Ayckbourn Ensemble & Shakespeare in the Park

Time of My Life
Written & directed by Alan Ayckbourn
Performances through June 29, 2014
59 E 59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

Much Ado About Nothing
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Jack O’Brien
Performances through July 6, 2014
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park, New York, NY

When We Were Young and Unafraid
Written by Sarah Treem; directed by Pam MacKinnon
Performances through August 10, 2014
Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

The cast of Farcicals (photo: Andrew Higgins)
The Ayckbourn Ensemble continues its too-short stay during this year’s Brits Off Broadway with two more glittering productions, written and directed by one of our supreme masters, Alan Ayckbourn. Farcicals, comprising two uproarious new one-acts, is sheer entertainment, while Time of My Life—a 1992 play which the words tragicomedy and dramedy do not do it justice—is an incisive study of family dynamics structured ingeniously (as always) by the playwright.

Time starts at a dinner party celebrating Laura’s 54th birthday at a favorite local haunt: in attendance are her husband Gerry, their oldest son Glyn, his wife Stephanie, their youngest—and Mom’s favorite—son Adam and his new girlfriend, Maureen. Over two acts, Ayckbourn moves around among Laura and Gerry after the party, Adam and Maureen weeks earlier and Glyn and Stephanie months later, all of them at the same restaurant presided over by waiters of varying degrees of ineptitude and brazenness…or both.

These precisely written scenes, which open avenues of clarity to the heart of these couples’ relationships, are never obscured by the playwright’s time-shifting structure, thanks to his own ingenious directing which shows how even the smallest events cause huge implications, whether  marriage, divorce or death caused by imbibing too much alcohol at a birthday dinner. It’s unfair to single anyone out in the exemplary cast, so hats off to Rachel Caffey (Maureen), Russell Dixon (Gerry), Sarah Parks (Laura), Emily Pithon (Laura), Ben Porters (waiters), James Powell (Adam) and Richard Stacey (Glyn).

By its very title, Farcicals is less heady stuff, but these one-acts about two couples’ marital difficulties show off Ayckbourn’s sharply funny writing, even in door-slamming farce. As one-liners and pratfalls combine for irresistible lunacy, Ayckbourn shrewdly directs the captivating quartet of Elizabeth Boag, Bill Champion, Sarah Stanley and Kim Wall, all giving brilliantly broad performances that ensure Farcicals is more than just a mere diversion.

Rabe and Mendes in Much Ado About Nothing (photo: Joan Marcus)
The current Shakespeare in the Park offering, Much Ado About Nothing, may be the best-directed show I’ve seen in Central Park. That might be faint praise, but Jack O’Brien’s agile and frisky staging of that most pleasing of Shakespeare’s star-crossed romantic comedies—which pivots on those eternally dueling wits Beatrice and Benedick, whose supposed loathing for each other masks their finally requited love—provides nearly three hours of outdoor enchantment.

O’Brien’s visually luscious staging comprises John Lee Beatty’s charming unit set of an Italian villa, Jane Greenwood’s zippy costumes and Jeff Croiter’s elegant lighting, which work wonders complementing the play’s melodiously musical poetry. Even O’Brien’s additions—opening in Italian before seguing to the Bard’s English, having characters magically moving a wall—don’t detract from the zesty comic atmosphere.

Much of the acting is impressive, especially Ismelia Mendes’ immensely appealing Hero (Beatrice’s cousin) and John Glover’s powerfully-spoken Leonato (Beatrice’s uncle), while Brian Stokes Mitchell’s charismatic Don Pedro smartly gets a song to sing and John Pankow’s bumbling cop Dogberry is amusingly hammy without going overboard. My lone quibble is our B&B: Hamish Linklater’s adequate Benedick has little chemistry with Lily Rabe’s Beatrice, who incessantly barks out her lines whether they are meant to be insulting, apologetic or thoughtful. Happily, there are enough compensations to make this a lively and engaging Much Ado.

Kazan and Jones in When We Were Young and Unafraid (photo: Joan Marcus)
In Sarah Treem’s ambitious but fatally unfocused When We Were Young and Unafraid, middle-aged Agnes runs a bed and breakfast on an isolated island near Seattle, which doubles as a safe house for battered women, with her burgeoning feminist 16-year-old daughter Penny. New arrivals are Mary Anne, a fleeing young wife—beaten badly with a swollen lip and nasty cut underneath her right eye—and Hannah, a black militant feminist who spouts clichĂ©d jargon about oppression and tries to get Agnes to break free from her shackles.

Treem’s hackneyed plot, cartoonish caricatures and trite dialogue bring her play time and again to a screeching halt. By setting it in 1972, Treem gives herself license to discuss feminism ad nauseum and even has Agnes misspeak and say “Ozarks” instead of “Ozone,” if only to show how new the latter term was, apparently. (Similarly, Mary Anne asks Penny if she has a rubber, not a condom.) Then there’s a new court case, “Roe vs. Wade”: when Hannah says that perhaps this means “The times are changing,” Agnes ruefully retorts “They’ll change back” with heavy-handed dramatic irony, calculated to make audience members gasp at such amazing prescience.

For once, that able director Pam Mackinnon is hamstrung by the growing preposterousness. That none of the relationships is believable from the outset forces several fine performers—Cherry Jones (Agnes), Zoe Kazan (Mary Anne), Cherise Boothe (Hannah), Morgan Saylor (Penny)—to awkwardly try (and ultimately fail) to get a handle on the sketchy characters Treem has provided.

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