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
Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn
Playing at 59E59 Theaters
Through July 3, 2016