The set-up: English playwright Alan Ayckbourn writes plays with a proficiency that is almost freakish. His upcoming premiere of Arrivals and Departures, set for this August at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, North Yorkshire, where he served as artistic director for 37 years, marks his 77th play.
Knighted in 1997, Sir Alan has had a distinguished career encompassing a double-wide bookcase filled with prestigious theater accolades: a Special Tony for Lifetime Achievement, double Tony awards for direction and writing, Olivier awards, Moliere awards, Drama Desk awards, Writers' Guild of Great Britain awards, NY Drama Critics' award. The list of citations is almost as long as his list of plays (Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, By Jeeves, Bedroom Farce, Communicating Doors, House & Garden, My Wonderful Day, etc., etc.).
Without question, he is a man of the theater -- only one screenplay and one book in his impressive catalog definitely shows where his love lies -- he tosses off quirky, intriguing, utterly imaginative pieces with deftness and sublime technique. His work is meant for the stage, destined for it, you might say. The execution: Wildest Dreams (1991), his 42nd play, now mesmerizing at Company OnStage in a thoroughly beguiling production, is intimate in scale, but its themes run deep; a comedy on its face.
At first glance you don't know quite how to take it, which is classic Ayckbourn. First, there's the set. To our right is a nondescript living room, or sitting room as the English would say, with sofa and reading area with chair and lamp and tasteful pictures and sideboard. To the left is a dingy room with fold-up cot, strewn about with crumpled takeout containers and an assortment of garbage. Perched on a platform upstage is a tiny bedroom, dominated by the light from a computer screen, miles of electric cords, and a weird picture collage on the walls that flanks a Union Jack. Where are we? Once we get through the first scene, the place -- three separate places actually-- fall right into place.
Four mismatched people are playing a fantasy, role-playing game in the living room: married couple Stanley and Hazel (Mark Jones and Elyse Rachal), nerdy student Warren (Geoffrey Geiger) in star-studded cape, and moody Rick (Stephanie Fisherman-Kelso) of indeterminate gender who sits crunched up on the floor, almost uncomfortable to be included. The game, invented by Warren, is like Dungeons and Dragons, some timeless, olde English adventure with wizards and beasts, with everyone playing characters. We won't find out much about the rules, but we'll learn all about this quartet's fantasies here on earth. That's an Ayckbourn trait, for sure.
Underneath, Stanley and Hazel's placid marriage is rocky indeed. They've had to share the house with her prig of a brother-in-law Austen (Chris Emery), who peeps through key holes and takes brotherly love to a creepy level. Professor Stanley's rather a bore, plodding through life avoiding confrontation. Everything's kept at arm's length, including wife Hazel. Hazel deeply regrets not having children, resents Stanley for it, and spends her time nervously plumping pillows and making tea. Rick, whose decrepit basement home is what we see to the left of the stage, has completely shut down, and when she's in her cramped cot she still hears her mother's lover shouting out for her to come to him. Warren believes he's an alien. In his attic command center he terrifies his poor mum by electrifying her bedroom door so she can't get out. He's waiting for his alien transformation, which is imminent.
Into their drab, fantasy-filled lives blows Marcie (Rebecca Johnson-Edgerly), who's run away from her abusive husband Larry (Micah Taylor). She seeks refuge with Rick, a work acquaintance. Her appearance, clear-eyed and spouting whatever she thinks to whomever she's talking to, whatever the consequences, is the catalyst for momentous change. She brings renewed romantic vigor to Stanley, mind-cracking jealousy to Hazel, blossoming strength to Rick, and a reason to live to Warren, who sees in her another free-spirited extraterrestrial. He fully expects a body meld with her. Wishful thinking, all well and good at the beginning, takes all of them to places they never sought to go. Reality is just as fragile as make-believe in Ayckbourn's skewed world, and some people aren't meant to go there either.
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Ayckbourn keeps this quartet spinning briskly, quick-cutting from scene to scene, sometimes letting dialogue overlap, sometimes just setting a creepy mood with sound effects of voices overheard. It's wonderfully crafted, as these little scenes build and build until Hazel snaps and goes mad, Rick and Marcie settle into lesbian domestic bliss (which doesn't last long), Stanley rashly declares his love, Warren transforms, and Austen, finally confronted by milquetoast Stanley about past sexual indiscretions, has a stroke. It's all quite funny in a sad sort of way, but if our laughter is held back in the early scenes because we're not quite sure how to process it, the human comedy is always front and center.
Dealing honestly with life's unblinking facts is hard enough for anyone, but these forlorn game players have opened a Pandora's box. Under Stacy Bakri's spirited direction and inside L. Robert Westeen's atmospheric triptych of a set, Ayckbourn's surprises come at you with startling immediacy. The ensemble is mighty good, especially Fisherman-Kelso as butch Rick who comes out of her shell only to fall into another one, Geiger as the nerdiest of nerds, and Johnson-Edgerly as the fresh breeze that blows the cobwebs away, spinning new ones as she goes.
The verdict: Ayckbourn's unique comedy, strange and dreamy in peculiar ways, pulses with wonder. We're thankful to Company OnStage, in the midst of its 34th season, to thoroughly resuscitate one of this distinguished playwright's most playful and thought-provoking works. Your move? Go.
Alan Ayckbourn's comedy scampers through June 8 at Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square. Purchase tickets online at companyonstage.org or call 713-726-1219. $15-$18.