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