Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Comley University has some issues with its Drama Society. Tonight, there’s been a box office mix up and “we trust the 650 of you hoping to see Hamilton might enjoy our production as much.” Budget issues have necessitated shows such as Chekhov’s modified Two Sisters and, due to spoilage, James and The Peach, which further regressed to James, Where’s Your Peach? Last year, a casting issue determined the mounting of Snow White and The Seven Tall, Broad-Shouldered Gentlemen. We’re informed of the society’s vicissitudes by Chris Bean at this, his directorial “daboo.”
Fasten your seat belts, audience, this is going to be an hysterical ride.
When longtime butler, Perkins (Jonathan Sayer) and Thomas Colleymore (James Cordon lookalike Henry Lewis, who uses his body like a prop) walk around a wall (the door is stuck) to bring Charles Haversham (Greg Tannahill – picture the deadpan perfection of Simon Jones) back to his wedding rehearsal party, they discover him murdered. Cue lights; ominous chord! Thomas’s sister Sandra (Charlie Russell), fiancé of the deceased, and Inspector Carter (Henry Shields) are sent for.
Dave Hearn, Greg Tannahill, Henry Lewis, Charlie Russell
Sandra, however, can’t get in either and must recite “No! I can’t believe what I’ve seen!” at the window far from view, then clumsily climbing through. Cecil Haversham (Dave Hearn who resembles Bill Irwin both in appearance and style) is pushed through the door by momentarily exposed, thoroughly abashed, cast members and stage hands. Having made his way through a blizzard – cue the tossing of square-cut white tissue paper outside, the Inspector arrives.
Everyone needs a drink. Perkins takes a grinding, smoke spewing elevator to the second floor study (we see this as an open platform with furniture) and retrieves a full bottle of scotch when, according to dialogue, it should be empty. Thinking fast he pours its contents down the intercom which opens onto the stage below with a splash. There should be a full bottle, he’s told. Reaching elsewhere, he then raises an empty one to the audience. Outcome: the company finds itself repeatedly drinking Paint Thinner (and just as often spitting it out.) Vintage? “Flammable and Corrosive.”
Missing props are blatantly handed in. Others are substituted for on the spot. Looking for the Inspector’s pencil, Thomas finds only duly delivered keys. The requested notebook is replaced by a vase filled with roses. Carter gamely scratches keys against vase to write. Henry Shields has the young John Cleese’s public school persona gone wildly awry. He manages to be staunch patrician and hugely droll at the same time.
Authors: Henry Shields, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Lewis
When the mantel falls off, stagehand Annie (Bryony Corrigan) finds herself holding two candlesticks through the wall a la Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Later, she’s forced to take over for the knocked out actress who plays Sandra, red dress on top of her overalls, book in hand. At first, Annie’s like a deer in headlights, then palpably surprised at the ongoing plot, and finally, territorial. When the original Sandra revives in Act II, returning to the stage in her scanties, the two physically fight out every line. Corrigan is swell.
Charles’s body falls through a stretcher. Two poles are ceremoniously carried out empty as if they were not, while the corpse crawls and slithers his way out the now functional door, rising to dramatically cross hands over chest. Later, Cecil must find an alternative solution to being borne by the broken carrier.
Sandra is having a secret affair with Cecil – did they do it?!, but the actor is repulsed by the actress’s advances. During an eventual forced kiss, he looks like a boa constrictor trying to swallow her whole. This particular player must be new to “the drama society.” He thrills to applause, taking time to appreciate it, beaming, sometimes bowing or repeating an action. Dave Hearn is one of the great highlights of the production. He’s adorable, executes slapstick like a silent film pro, and responds with uproarious precision.
Dave Hearn, Charlie Russell
There’s another murder, a discovered will, and the appearance of a Head Gardener who may be involved (Hearn). Motivation abounds. Cues fall unanswered. Up in a visible stage box, Stage Manager Trevor (Rob Falconer) is more concerned with the loss of his Duran Duran tape than the production, though even he gets amusingly conscripted when two of the cast are stricken unconscious.
When Carter can’t find a mislaid ledger, frustration leads to actual whimpering. We see it under the chaise. An audience member, then several, helpfully call out its location out to the actor. (I’ll wager a month’s rent this occurs on the night you’re there.) Needless to say, he responds with fury at our not taking the play seriously.
The play within the play, though certainly broad satire, is sufficiently well written to hold attention. Focus is paramount and present. Company members each have their contributory strengths with only Charlie Russell and Jonathan Sayer relative disappointments.
Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields, Dave Hearn
Every move is accompanied by perfectly timed freezes as the cast registers and/or endures one disaster after another. Expressions are priceless. I’ve seen several productions of Michael Frayn’s backstage piece, Noises Off, and I’m here to tell you this multiplies that play’s pandemonium by tenfold. Or more. Fights are beautifully choreographed, elaborate pratfalls and saves worthy of Chaplin and Keaton. Bravo Director Mark Bell.
Nigel Hook’s brilliant, elaborate, tawdry looking Set is engineered within an inch of company lives, like a Rube Goldberg mechanism. Roberto Surace’s Costumes are worthy of Agatha Christie.Sound Design by Andrew Johnson demands as much exactness as cascading scenery and comes through with flying colors.
The Play That Goes Wrong, is conceived and – lucky us – enacted, by three twenty-something, out of work, British actors who will stop appearing after the Broadway iteration. Already a long running West End hit, the farce has spawned a number of other, international productions. It’s easy to imagine the piece going viral with long lives everywhere people need to laugh. Go. It’s a tonic.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Opening: Jonathan Sayer, Henry Lewis, Dave Hearn, Charlie Russell (window), Greg Tannahill
The Mischief Theatre production of The Play That Goes Wrong “The Cornley University Drama Society presents Murder at Haversham Manor by Susie H. K. Brideswell” Directed by Mark Bell Written by Henry Shields, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer Lyceum Theatre 149 West 45th Street
Alan Ayckbourn’s been in the business of writing plays for a long time. One of his newest, “Hero’s Welcome,” is now playing at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off-Broadway series. His other show currently running, Confusions, features the same actors, but where that is a series of sometimes-serious, sometimes-silly but always insightful plays about perspective, Hero’s Welcome is another kind of beast. Still full of wit and charm, it takes its characters to much deeper, darker places before the lights go out.
Military man Murray (Richard Stacey) returns from years abroad with not only wartime baggage, but a bright and beautiful new bride named Madrababacascabuna (Baba for short, played by a truly delightful Evelyn Hoskins). This return to his hometown is meant to be a step forward for the newlyweds, a chance to put the violence of their pasts behind them and work to build something together.
While she dives into English lessons, he has his parents’ old inn in mind as the project to make him feel home again. There is, however, a problem. Two actually, in the form of the town mayor Alice (Elizabeth Boag), his long-ago jilted fiancée, and Brad (Stephen Billington), their former mutual friend. They’ve had nearly two decades to deal with the aftermath of their relationship choices, but when Murray appears with Baba all of the old wounds are made fresh again, and all the old feuds are back on. Unfortunately, no one seems to have told Murray.
Brad is a spoiled, mean-spirited toff, a betting man, and a sore loser of the worst kind. In Baba he sees a way to hurt Murray for past ills. Stick it to the old man by sticking it to his old lady, as it were. That we don’t know what those past ills may be keeps Murray something of a mystery for the duration of the first act, though he only makes himself more villainous by strong-arming Alice’s meek, toy train enthusiast husband, Derrek (Russell Dixon), into a wager.
As for Brad’s bullied and beleaguered wife, Emma (Charlotte Harwood), it’s unclear whether she knows the full truth behind for her husband’s gruff demeanor around Murray and Alice. She does, however, take quite strongly to Baba and hopes she has found something previously elusive to her: a real friend. Her exposure to the indomitable girl and the effect it has on her creates far-reaching implications.
Hero’s Welcome contains a lot of plot, but it’s beautifully paced, allowing each conversation to flow into the next with hardly a pause. This is achieved by keeping the stage set as three different locations throughout, the closeness required of the actors mirroring the stuffy, boxed-in lives their characters live. Alice and Emma in particular find themselves backed into corners trying to distance themselves from the disappointing men in their lives.
Baba, meanwhile, displays an extraordinary ear for language and meaning, picking up very precise and complex words and becoming adept at stringing them together. Some of the funniest lines in the show are simply reveals of just how sophisticated Baba’s vocabulary has become in such a short time. In fact, she becomes the most articulate speaker of all, despite the thick accent that marks her as an outsider to the rest of the characters. The easy thing would be to suspect Murray and Baba’s relationship is of the mail-order variety — what with her being so much younger than her new husband — but as the show progresses and we see more of their interactions, it becomes clear they are the best-suited couple of them all, language barriers be damned.
Where the first act works in priming each character and making us think we know where things are going, the second very effectively knocks them all down. All except for Baba, who remains decisive and proactive despite mounting hostilities. By the end of the second act one can’t help but consider that she may in fact be the titular hero. Once again, Ayckbourn displays a deft hand at creating strong and complex female characters that you want to keep watching long after the play has finished.
Written and Directed by Alan Ayckbourn
Playing at 59E59 Theaters through July 3
Photos: Tony Bartholomew
Opening photo: Evelyn Hoskins, as Baba Photo 1: (L-R) Evelyn Hoskins, as Baba, and Richard Stacey, as Murray
Photo 2: Elizabeth Boag, as Alice
Photo 3: (L-R) Stephen Billington, as Brad, and Russell Dixon, as Derrick
The name of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1974 play is Confusions, but the title doesn’t quite describe the ethos of the scenes that unfold. The vignettes that comprise the show — five in all — deal with the pains of intimacy, sexuality and the illumination of the human condition. In scene after scene, trust breaks down, denial falls to the wayside, and characters make discoveries about themselves and those around them that will forever change their lives. But, you know, with laughs.
Each of the first four plays is connected with the others. The missing husband in the first makes a drunken nuisance of himself in the second. The waiter who brings the drinks also bears witness to dissolution of two dysfunctional marriages. One of those angry wives later finds herself a part of a rapidly disintegrating community fundraiser where chaos reigns while a soaking rain begins to fall. Lastly, five solitary souls on separate park benches rebuff each other’s attempts at connection, none of them realizing they all crave the same thing.
The plays are each striking in how they can convey, beneath the comedy of manners, the inner workings of some very sad, very lonely people. Some, like the isolated mother of three treating her neighbors the best way she knows how, like children in need of a firm hand, stoically carry on. Others are swept away in a tide of thoughts and feelings beyond their control, like the womanizer secretly, desperately wishing to escape thoughts of his failure of a marriage, or the village spinster whose loneliness leads from one mistake to a bevy of unexpected consequences.
On one hand, there’s plenty of old-fashioned casual misogyny at work. Women are expected to be in the kitchen or in the bedroom. If they’re on their own, it’s because they can’t catch a man. Young, vibrant women have affairs with crusty old men — the kind of men who wear socks with sandals, who pinch ladies’ bottoms in passing, blowhards and big fish in small bowls — a situation that, in reverse, would be seen as thoroughly inappropriate. There is nothing to recommend these men to the women they’ve somehow captured, and yet there they are.
On second thought, however, what we see is a series of women who, despite their circumstances and their uncaring or philandering husbands, find truth and confidence in who they are and what they want. Or do not want, as the case may be. The lonely mother is harried and has no option but to continue being a mother, but that doesn’t mean she can’t take control when she needs to. And she certainly doesn’t need her husband to keep her house in order. The young perfume seller remains polite to the increasingly inebriated would-be suitor, but that doesn’t mean she’ll let herself be talked into doing anything she doesn’t want to.
It could be easy to take one side of the argument or the other, and perhaps this is why Confusions is one of Ayckbourn’s most studied works. There’s more than enough evidence to proclaim it a work stuck in the past, but also enough to declare it a subtly feminist piece that offers women who make the best of what they can, pulling themselves up and getting down to business instead of despairing over what was, what is, and what could have been.
Elizabeth Boag, Stephen Billington, and Russell Dixon
The play is full of humor and amusing situations, but the most outright hilarious vignette, “Between Mouthfuls,” is a fantastic study in perspective. Moving between two sets of diners, a waiter slowly witnesses the unraveling of a shared secret all the while trying to do his job in increasingly awkward circumstances. It’s brilliantly staged and uses silence to tremendous effect. The punctuation that brings the scene to its close is a bit much, but overall Ayckbourn is extremely smart in taking advantage of the main character’s near silence and his constant movement around the room to create a high farce that will keep the giggles rolling.
The play’s conclusion, while lacking the fancy footwork and fast-talking of some of the earlier pieces, is a thoughtful rumination on how we interact. Once again, perspective is everything. It’s easy to remain silent when you think there’s no one who cares about what you have to say. However, a nudge in the right direction may show that we’re more alike than it seems on the surface. Everyone needs to communicate and everyone wants to feel heard. In the end it’s all about connection, even when we get lost in confusion.
Photos by Tony Bartholomew
Top photo: Richard Stacey
Confusions Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn Playing at 59E59 Theaters Through July 3, 2016