Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Off-Broadway Reviews—Alan Ayckbourn’s “Hero’s Welcome” & “Confusions”; “Taming of the Shrew” in Central Park

Hero’s Welcome & Confusions
Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn
Performances through July 3, 2016
Brits Off Broadway, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

The Taming of the Shrew
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Performances through June 26, 2016
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

Alan Ayckbourn's Confusions (photo: Tony Bartholomew)
The titles of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays may seem simple, even obvious, but his usually one- or two-word titles, simultaneously descriptive and ironic, take on great import. The two plays brought to New York as the glittering centerpieces of the Brits Off Broadway Festival from Ayckbourn’s home base, the St. James Theatre in Scarborough, Yorkshire, are cases in point.

Confusions, a 1974 compendium of hilarious shorts, unaccountably has never previously been done in New York, while Hero’s Welcome is the latest—and 79th!—play by the prolific dramatist; both are written, directed and acted with utmost generosity, flair and seriousness of purpose.

Comprising five raucous one-acts—concerning, in order, a harried mom who treats adults as children, her playboy husband who puts the make on two young women at a bar, two couples who have dinner as a harried waiter tries to do his job, a disastrous town picnic that gets worse by the minute, and five people sitting on park benches trying to communicate with (or avoid) others—Confusions could be seen as a knee-slapping two hours of theater or a profoundly melancholy but humane comic portrait.

Either way it can’t fail to score, but the latter is Ayckbourn’s default position: no matter how archly his people act toward one another, how difficult the paces he puts them through, or how thoroughly messy their relationships are, there’s always a twinkle in the playwright’s eye that becomes a glimmer of hope for his assorted heroes and fools, lovers and fighters, narcissists and introverts, and everyone in between.

Alan Ayckbourn's Hero's Welcome (photo: Tony Bartholomew)
That comic complexity comes to the fore in Hero’s Welcome, in which Ayckbourn explores with sublime subtlety the fallout when a man, 19 years after leaving acrimoniously, returns to his hometown as a war hero with a foreign wife in tow, hoping to shake up the staid townspeople, among whom are his former fiancée (whom he jilted at the altar, pregnant) and his former best friend.

And that’s just the start of the serious weight placed on the shoulders of these often weak-kneed characters; as always, Ayckbourn balances tragedy and comedy precariously but, in the long run, beautifully. He chides them, but always affectionately. Even when sordid revelations pile up—and physical ailments and death rear their heads—the play, amazingly, marches on to an ending that’s anything but blissful but which still shines with hopefulness about the future.

Ayckbourn directs both plays with precision and control on Michael Holt’s gloriously realized sets that comprise a quintet of playing areas for Confusions and three distinct homes for Hero’s Welcome, with nothing crammed onto 59 E 59’s small stage. The acting company is, unsurprisingly, beyond compare: Evelyn Hoskins sweetly plays the pivotal role of the hero’s young wife Madrababacascabuna (Baba for short) in Hero, while five wonderfully agile performers—Stephen Billington, Elizabeth Boag, Russell Dixon, Charlotte Harwood and Richard Stacey—enact several roles superbly in both plays.

It’s worth singling out Ayckbourn and performers for Confusions’ miniature masterpiece, Between Mouthfuls. The conceit—a pair of actors at each table are only heard speaking when the waiter comes within earshot—is ingenious but not show-offy; but the effortlessness of Billington, Boag, Dixon, Harwood and Stacey and Ayckbourn’s deft direction make this one-act among the most sheerly pleasurable twenty-plus minutes in all of my decades of theater going.

A scene from The Taming of the Shrew (photo: Joan Marcus)
Along with The Merchant of Venice, it’s The Taming of the Shrew that’s the most problematic Shakespeare play: as the title spells out, it dramatizes an independent but wayward young woman being tamed by her superior husband. Of course, as with all Shakespeare, there’s plenty of room for re-interpretation and illumination, since the text is pregnant with the possibility of multiple readings.

But Phyllida Lloyd’s Delacorte Theater solution is to blow it up and graft unoriginal and unamusing business onto it to make it more “today,” like blaring 35-year-old Pat Benatar and Joan Jett songs and having a beauty pageant framing device that allows for a Donald Trump voice impression. It all shows off Lloyd’s cleverness at the expense of Shakespeare.

What goes on is a way to deal with the text’s sexism without confronting it outright. If that’s the case, however, why do the play at all? But political correctness can’t bury Shakespeare’s artistry and insight, especially if Kate’s final, brilliant if non-P.C. soliloquy of self-abasement in front of her husband Petrucchio is considered tongue in cheek—which Lloyd apparently does not subscribe to.

In any case, Lloyd has made a distaff Shrew that turns Shakespearean era all-male performance practice on its head without dealing with the sexism at the play’s core. Janet McTeer, flailing about like Bill Nighy in drag, hams mightily from the outset, scoring cheap if occasionally effective comic points. Much of the rest of the cast fades into one another with little distinctiveness, although Judy Gold steps out of character briefly for a funny if superfluous monologue as a 21st century male chauvinist, i.e., Donald Trump.

Finally (and happily), Cush Jumbo makes a seductively feminine Kate, even if Lloyd overdirects her to constantly stomp around the stage in anger, to ever-diminishing returns. Otherwise, she sounds, looks and acts exactly right. Here’s hoping Jumbo gets another chance to portray Kate in a real production of The Taming of the Shrew.

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