Friday, June 10, 2016

24. Review: HERO'S WELCOME (seen June 9, 2016)

"Her Name is Madrababacasabuna!"
Watching Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s Hero’s Welcome at 59E59 Theaters a night after seeing Confusion, his program of five “interconnected” one-acts, with the same company from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, UK, offers yet another lesson in the magic of good acting. In Hero’s Welcome all but one actor play only a single role while in Confusions everyone demonstrates their versatility in multiple, sharply differentiated characters. You may not realize from Hero’s Welcome just how flexible their talents are, but isn’t that usually the case with character actors who constantly surprise us with their ability to completely alter their personas, as opposed to those who always seem to be doing more or less the same thing?

Elizabeth Boag, Derek Russell, Stephen Billington. Photo: Tony Bartholomew.
Confusions is a revival of a 1974 play but Hero’s Welcome, the most recent of the 76-year-old Ayckbourn’s 79 plays, premiered as recently as 2015. Unlike the most familiar of his oeuvre, plays like Relatively Speaking, The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular, and Bedroom Farce, it uses comedy sparingly to tell a story with rather serious events, including a killing, a stroke, and arson; there are some raucous laughs, of course, but the tone definitely leans toward the dark side. Ayckbourn’s genius is such that even when his characters and situations tend toward nastiness humor ripples through the subtext and performances.
Elizabeth Boag. Photo: Tony Bartholomew.
After 17 years, a soldier named Murray Truscott (Richard Stacey) has returned to his northern English town a war hero after saving hospitalized kids from a fire in some unspecified, presumably East European, country’s war zone. He’s brought back his bride, a baby-faced young woman burdened with the comically exaggerated moniker Madrababcascabuna (Evelyn Hoskins, the only actor not in Confusions), which he’s shortened to Baba (although she later insists, "My name is Madrababacasabuna!") Baba’s struggling to learn English, which sets up a series of funny lines but also demonstrates her fortitude—despite the need for tranquilizers—and resourcefulness. The pair hopes to restore his family’s decrepit old hotel, the Bird of Prey. Murray, though, knows he has to overcome local resentment over his having run off and left his pregnant fiancée, Alice (Elizabeth Boag), at the altar. He has good intentions but his presence only upsets the already rotting apple cart.
Evelyn Hoskins, Richard Stacey. Photo: Tony Bartholomew.
Alice, now the mayor, must reluctantly preside over the town’s formal welcome to the returning hero, whom she’s far from happy to learn is planning to stay around. The husband she tolerates is the avuncular builder Derek (Russell Dixon), childishly obsessed with the computerized model railroad he’s set up throughout his house and whose train choo-choos into view at regular intervals. Derek’s well-meaning meddling becomes partly responsible for the bloodshed that ensues.
Evelyn Hoskins. Photo: Tony Bartholomew.
There’s one other couple involved, Brad (Stephen Billington) and Kara (Charlotte Harwood). Brad, a well-off farmer in a manor house, was Murray’s boyhood pal and romantic rival (Alice being a shared goal); his manly pursuits include shooting clay pigeons (offstage gunshots are often heard). Brad’s a chauvinistic bounder, not averse to humiliating his wife—a onetime strip-o-grammer—before others, or to betting Derek he can bed Baba. Wife abusers are familiar in the Ayckbourn library, even appearing in the guise of Terry, also perfectly played by Billington, in one of the Confusions playlets.

There are situations in Hero’s Welcome that aren’t fully convincing, like the fates of two principal characters (which I won’t spoil), and one might question whether Baba could learn English so well so quickly, but Ayckbourn’s gifts make everything plausible enough within the world he creates to keep you interested for most of the play's somewhat overlong two and a half hours (with an intermission). Also, the late appearance of Kara's 17-year-old daughter (also played by Harewood) seems intrusive and her behavior a bit hard to swallow. The playwright's masterful direction makes vivid many moments only hinted at on the page, such as the discomfort of  the three couples when they all first congregate at Brad and Kara’s, with endless pauses and nervous fidgeting as they try  to break the ice.
Stephen Billington, Russell Dixon. Photo: Tony Bartholomew.
Hero’s Welcome, originally done in the round, uses the same Michael Holt black background seen in Confusions, but with the simultaneous arrangement of three separate, sparsely set spaces: Murray and Baba’s motel room, Brad and Kara’s manor home, and Derek and Alice’s house. Jason Tyler lights each efficiently and Holt provides the present-day costuming.

Through all the marital misunderstanding, bitterness, and even violence, Ayckbourn maintains the possibility of nuptial bliss, at least for Murray and Baba. Late in the play, Murray has a speech in which he questions the deeds that made him a hero; not long after, however, we realize that it’s in their relationship where the possibility of true heroism lies.


59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59th Street, NYC
Through June 3