Wednesday, May 9, 2018

5 (2018-2019): Review: A BRIEF HISTORY OF WOMEN (seen May 8, 2018)

"The Soul of Wit"

Sir Alan Ayckbourn (Relatively Speaking, The Norman Conquests), the popular 79-year-old British playwright/director who has written more plays than he is old, is back in New York with his latest, A Brief History of Women.

Provocative as the title may be, that’s not what the play is about, unless, perhaps, you think of it as a brief history of the women in the life of the central character, Anthony Spates (Antony Eden). In a way, this frequently amusing comedy, with its sentimental ending, is also a brief history of the house in which the action, and Antony’s professional life, plays out.
Frances Marshall, Antony Eden, Louise Shuttleworth. Photo: Tony Bartholomew.  
Like many Ayckbourn plays that employ intriguing structural innovations, A Brief History of Women (whose premiere was last year at Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough) is similarly inclined. Its two acts are divided into two parts each, all set within the same English manor house (think Downton Abbey) over a period of 60 years.

In 1925, it’s Kirkbridge Manor; in 1945, it’s Kirkbridge Manor, Preparatory School for Girls; in 1965, it’s Kirkbridge Arts Centre; and in 1985, it’s Kirkbridge Manor Hotel. Over those six decades, Antony, a local farm boy, ages from 17 (when he’s a part-time footman) to 37 (when he’s a school teacher) to 57 (when he’s an arts administrator), to 77 (when he’s a retired hotel manager).
Laurence Pears, Antony Eden, Russell Dixon. Photo: Tony Bartholomew. 
A placid fellow who exists more by reacting than taking the initiative in his personal—especially romantic—endeavors, Tony is first seen standing mutely by, serving tray in hand. Eyes agog, he observes the appallingly misogynistic behavior toward his much younger wife, Lady Caroline (Frances Marshall), of the boorish Lord Edward Kirkbridge (Russel Dixon).

Twenty years after Lady Caroline gives the bashful Tony his first kiss, he’s seen having a hot affair with the sexually ravenous Ursula Brock (Laura Matthews). This causes serious consternation on the part of the fussy headmaster, Dr. Wynford Williams (Dixon), afraid of scandalizing the school’s students.
Laura Matthews. Photo: Tony Bartholomew.
Fast forward another 20 years and we’re watching a rehearsal for a Christmas pantomime during which Gillian Dunbar (Louise Shuttleworth), wife of the unfaithful actor/director Dennis (Dixon), shows a decided interest in Tony (who will marry her). 

Finally, the conclusion reintroduces Lady Caroline, now a wheelchair-bound invalid of 98, brought by her solicitous great-granddaughter Tilly (Matthews) and her husband, Jim (Laurence Pears) to Kirkwood. Question: will this invalided old lady snap out of her infirmity and recognize the mild-mannered manager?  

During the course of the four parts, Ayckbourn delights in wittily satirizing human foibles (including the British class system), from the pomposities of an effeminate actor/director (a surprising choice for someone who seduces a married woman), to a Marxist actor who angrily sees capitalistic intentions in every line, to a postwar teacher who insists a Swedish colleague named Miller is a Nazi named Muller.

Moreover, for all the feminist vibrations suggested by its title, A Brief History of Women isn’t interested in polemics. It doesn’t reveal significant differences in its women over the years, nor is any notable argument made regarding women’s evolution. The tone is consistently comic, sometimes bordering on farce, yet the smiles induced only now and then erupt into loud laughter, and even more rarely into hilarity. At the same time, Ayckbourn consistently makes what everyone says interestingly human. In fact, you’re likely now and then to feel a tug at your heartstrings.
Frances Marshall, Laurence Pears, Louise Shuttleworth, (rear) Antony Eden, Laura Matthews. Photo: Tony Bartholomew.
Eden, beautifully laid back, plays Tony throughout, graying his hair and adding touches like a slight pot belly. Marshall, in addition to two other roles, beautifully portrays Caroline at two widely separated ages, while the rest of the company handles four roles each. Changing costumes and wigs to reflect the passing years (good work from designer Kevin Jenkins, who also did the sets), they conjure up a panoply of precisely calibrated British types. Most flamboyantly colorful is Dixon, who makes even his momentary appearance as a hotel bellhop memorable.

Jenkins’s set pictures two adjoining rooms—one richly wood paneled, one more like a marble hallway—the edges of which have the look of having been exploded so their walls are transparent; the downstage perimeter serves as an exterior, a ballroom, and other purposes.

Ayckbourn’s clever staging, abetted by perfectly timed sound effects, includes much pantomimed opening and shutting of imaginary doors, and having the actors move about with clockwork precision. He even choreographs the fairly lengthy scene shifts that alter the rooms’ appearance by setting them with clockwork precision to Simon Slater’s original music. The stagehands, who change clothing to reflect the respective year, got applause the night I went.  

Its title is misleading about its subject and, at two and a half hours, its length, but A Brief History of Women by any other name would smell as sweet.


59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through May 27