Thursday, June 9, 2016

22. Review: CONFUSIONS (seen June 8, 2016)

“A is for Acting Ayckbourn”

Stars range from 5-1.
Prolific British playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s Confusions, a program of “five interlinked one-act plays,” first produced in England in 1974, two years before it was seen in London, is finally getting its New York debut at 59E59 Theaters as part of their annual Brits Off Broadway festival. Much like watching a Neil Simon comedy of the same era, seeing these comedies about marital dysfunction, adultery, male chauvinism, romantic disappointment, and related subjects—mostly about women getting the short end of the stick—allows us to compare attitudes of those times with ours. The plays are often funny but, given the passage of time, not as much as one might wish; only now and then, particularly in the final one, “A Talk in the Park,” do darker shadows fall.

Elizabeth Boag, Stephen Billington, Russell Dixon. Photo: Tony Bartholomew.
Ayckbourn’s fondness for clever playwriting devices is present, but not in the striking ways found in many of his more fully developed plays. One idea is to have a character from each play present in the next, although this isn’t followed through in “A Talk in the Park,” nor is it especially illuminating. (A similar technique, of course, was used many years ago in Schnitzler’s La Ronde.) In “Between Mouthfuls” two nearby couples are chatting at dinner in a restaurant only for their words to fade in and out as the focus shifts from table to table, allowing just what the waiter hears to be audible; since their mouths keep forming words, the effect is as if someone were playing with the volume control.

Mildly enjoyable as the plays are (the laughs are mainly of the chuckle variety), the chief reason to see them is the marvelous comic versatility of the five-member ensemble, which has come over from Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, where Confusions was expertly staged by the playwright himself. Acting enthusiasts will want to see the tall, slender Stephen Billington go from playing the chauvinistic husband, Terry, in “Mother Figure,” to the elegantly swishy waiter in “Drinking Companion” and “Between Mouthfuls,” to the childish Boy Scout leader in “Gosforth’s Fête,” to the guy in “Talk in the Park” who’s trying to enjoy his time away from his nagging wife only to be assailed by an eccentric woman.
Charlotte Harwood, Richard Stacey, Elizabeth Boag. Photo: Tony Bartholomew.
And there’s Elizabeth Boag, who shifts from Lucy, the pajama-wearing mother in “Mother Figure,” whose round-the-clock raising of her little ones makes her treat even adults as kids, to Bernice, the well-groomed, sophisticated perfume salesperson in “Drinking Companion,” who helps her friend fend off a drunken Lothario, to Mrs. Pearce, the aging, upper-class, councillor’s wife in “Between Mouthfuls” and “Gosforth’s Fête,” to Beryl, the abused wife in “A Talk in the Park.” Each member of this chameleon-like company of character actors moves from role to role with equally delightful variations in appearance, voice, accent, and manner, ultimately providing a diverse satirical portrait of notably British character types.
Richard Stacey, Elizabeth Boag. Photo: Tony Bartholomew.
Stylistically, “Mother Figure” is almost absurdist in its depiction of a woman controlling a neighboring married couple (Billington and Charlotte Harwood) as if they were naughty children, while “Gosforth’s Fête” is pure farce in showing how many things can go wrong in setting up a public fundraiser. “Drinking Companion” is a character study of an unfaithful, heavy-drinking husband (Richard Stacey) trying to pick up a woman (Harwood) in the hotel he’s staying at; “Between Mouthfuls” watches two couples having dinner at nearby restaurant tables, with one pair being a cuckolded husband (Stacey) and his wife (Harwood) and the other the cuckolder (Dixon) and his own spouse (Boag), as an eavesdropping waiter (Billington) hovers patiently, trying to get each couple’s orders. Finally, there’s the slightly Beckettian “Talk in the Park” with five strangers occupying four benches: a man (Dixon) talks to the woman (Boag) next to him until, bored and bothered by her own problems, she moves to the next bench and does the same thing to the man (Stacey) next to her, and so on, with no one interested in what anyone else has to say nor able to find someone who wants to hear their own story.
Russel Dixon. Photo: Tony Bartholomew. 
Michael Holt’s simple, black, unit set remains essentially the same throughout, altered chiefly by the furnishings and props brought on with choreographic precision during the scene breaks to the accompaniment of bouncy British jazz. Jason Tyler makes the most of the lighting possibilities, and Holt’s costumes (and wigs, one imagines) provide the proper period look.
Stephen Billington. Photo: Tony Bartholomew. 
Not everything clicks during Confusion’s two acts, running two hours and 15 minutes, but there’s enough A-quality acting here to get you through even the A-list Ayckbourn’s occasional longueurs.


54E54 Theaters/Theater A
54 E. 54th Street, NYC
Through July 3