The set-up: On the modern British stage there are three old masters: Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and Alan Ayckbourn. Pinter spins pauses into taut existential thrillers, Stoppard spins words into new worlds, Ayckbourn literally spins doors into plays. His Communicating Doors (1994), a comedy thriller sandwiched somewhere between a good episode of "Twilight Zone" and a not-so naughty sit-com like "Three's Company," receives a refreshing spin in the Alley's current production.
Sir Alan is England's most prolific playwright with at least 78 plays on his resume. He's a master at tweaking the tweedy middle class and sending his hapless characters spinning out of control, usually not knowing how to stop the chaos they've created for themselves. Thoroughly ingenious in his plotting, he loves playing with time and multiple settings, or, as here, multiple time in a single setting. An Ayckbourn play is always clever and entertaining. For all its professional polish and sleight-of-hand, Doors is clever, if somewhat on the thin side.
The execution: Domanatrix "Poopay" (Julie Sharbutt in a thoroughly delightful Alley debut), sweet and rather out of her element, arrives in the hotel suite of rich geezer Reece (Jeffrey Bean) toting a bag full of her toys of the trade. The jangling that emanates from the satchel is funny in itself. But old Reese doesn't want her companionship, he wants her to witness his dying confession. He wants to come clean after a lifetime of embezzlement, securities fraud, and other assorted very bad deeds, which include the murders of his two former wives. His business partner Julian (James Black in creepy mode that he does so well), who has mother issues, has committed the crimes on his behest, and when he discovers that Poopay now has the goods on him, plans to do her in also. (Only Black could carry a pillow to the sofa on which she sits with such chilling menace.) That's when Poopay bolts into the closet - that "communicating door" of the title - and, whoosh, magically goes back 20 years in time, finding herself in that same hotel suite. And who might be staying there but Reese's second wife Ruella (Josie de Guzman). Ackybourn's plot clicks wondrously into place like an intricate Swiss lock.
Feisty, strong, and good, Ruella seizes the opportunity to save first wife Jessica (Melissa Pritchett), saving herself in the process, and perhaps keeping Poopay out of harm's way too. It's the women against the men in this gentle but serious race against time past. An added bonus in the controlled mayhem is Todd Waite as the prim and officious hotel security guard who we meet through the decades.
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If there's a theme to be gleaned, it's that one good deed, no matter how impetuous or incidental, can possibly change the course of one's life. One just has to grab the chance. Ayckbourn keeps the surprises coming, using a pro's sense of how to delicately balance comedy and suspense. The whole thing sort of works, but it's a little like having high tea at a faded English seaside hotel. The staff works overtime to be solicitous, but the food's a bit ordinary.
Except for one physical comedy sequence that absolutely falls flat - Ruella dangles from her balcony while Poopay and Jessica attempt to pull her in - director Boyd has fun with the revolving door concept and quick entrances. Linda Buchanan's swanky hotel set (the city background projections change according to the decade, while the paintings in the room transform) and Michael Lincoln's mood lighting add to the pleasure of Ayckbourn's sci-fi time-shifting. While De Guzman plays the adventure a bit too daft and wide-eyed, the comedy belongs to Sharbutt, who is delightfully dotty and inept as a would-be seducer, and vulnerable and cuddly as the newest victim.
The verdict: The play starts to double back on itself somewhere near the end of Act I, which slows things down, but Act II jump starts our interest again as these three women decide their own fate. And there's a sweet coda wherein Poopay, now using her real name Phoebe, finds herself in a surprising and satisfying new life. Ayckbourn's done a lot better work (House & Garden, The Norman Conquests, My Wonderful Day), but Doors spins with a constant smile. The play doesn't really go anywhere, but the bright and shiny mechanics send off sparks of fun. And on stage, that's always worth seeing.
Communicating Doors runs through April 27 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Purchase tickets online at alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700. $26-$80.