Monday, June 9, 2014

NYC Theater Roundup—Ayckbourn’s ‘Arrivals & Departures’ & Wohl’s ‘American Hero’

Arrivals & Departures
Written & directed by Alan Ayckbourn
Previews began May 29, 2014; closes June 29
59 E 59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

American Hero
Written by Bess Wohl; directed by Leigh Silverman
Previews began May 12, 2014; closes June 15
Second Stage Uptown, 76th Street & Broadway, New York, NY

Champion and Boag in Arrivals & Departures (photo: Andrew Higgens)
Our most dazzling theatrical prestidigitator is back: British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, celebrating his 75th birthday with his 78th play (!!!), returns to Brits Off Broadway with three new productions. First up is Arrivals & Departures, another tightly structured comedy that morphs almost imperceptibly into tragedy thanks to one of Ayckbourn’s most brilliant sleights-of-hand.

What begins as a farcical run-through of the SSDO (Strategic Simulated Distractions Operations) unit’s attempt to capture an elusive terrorist in a London train terminal soon becomes something else entirely; as always with Ayckbourn, it happens gradually. The plot focuses on soldier Ez, a rather humorless young woman, who must guard a civilian witness being brought down from Yorkshire, a blabbering middle-aged ticket warden named Barry. At first their relationship comprises his annoying blather and her endless ways to avoid him. But Ayckbourn’s deft use of flashbacks and repetition deepens these characters psychologically and dramatically (and comedically, of course).

Ayckbourn’s first act flashbacks of events in Ez’s life occur as the terminal scenes are enacted, then in the second act, mirror images of those same terminal scenes are reenacted, interspersed with flashbacks of Barry’s past. Having the same dialogue repeated in the second act cunningly fleshes out Ez and Barry, since hearing it again allows the audience to comprehend it with more information at its disposal.   

Arrivals & Departures might not be one of Ayckbourn’s very greatest plays, but it’s enormously entertaining and thought-provoking, especially as it’s been so breezily directed by its author and persuasively enacted by his entire cast of 13, playing 32 (!!!) roles. Even small roles of undercover agents practicing the terrorist snatch and grab are finely etched, and Bill Champion’s Quentin, ringmaster over the botched SSDO proceedings, is officiously hilarious.

Masterly is the only way to describe the performances of Elizabeth Boag and Kim Wall, who bring hilarity, gravity and humanity to the stage. Boag’s Ez goes through minute but discernible changes over the course of the play; the subtle gestures, movements and vocal inflections mark Boag as an actress to reckon with. Barry could easily have been turned into a caricature, but Wall’s tics, mannerisms and stutter-stops while talking—which is most of the time—transform this ordinary bloke into an extraordinary creation. And with that, the Ayckbourn mini-festival is off to a magnificent start.

O'Connell and Graynor in American Hero (photo: Joan Marcus)
A trio of fast food workers—single mom, downsized corporate exec and young woman—tries to keep a failing sandwich shop franchise work against all odds in Bess Wohl’s American Hero, a timely but trite comic fable for the new economy.

Soon after owner Bob hires them and opens the place, supplies cease arriving and Bob stops dropping in, so the trio eventually has to resort to wits and all-American ingenuity to keep the store going. But despite a few funny and pointed moments, Wohl’s play never makes the comedic failure of the shop compelling or plausible: it just happens. That might be true to life, but here it doesn’t make for a satisfying drama or comedy.

Leigh Silverman’s clever staging showcases a fine acting quartet, with Daoud Heidami as an amusing Bob, irate customers and even a fantasy sandwich; while Erin Wilhelm and Jerry O’Connell are believable as, respectively, the nerdy and needy Sheri and the desperately slumming Ted. Then there’s Ari Graynor, an underrated but formidable comedienne whose Jamie is sexy and shrewd. But American Hero never overcomes its own built-in limitations.

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