I consider Alan Ayckbourn the great playwright of my theatergoing lifetime. Through most of the 1980s and ’90s, I would plan my trips to London to coincide with new plays from the prolific British dramatist: Henceforward, The Revengers’ Comedies, Man of the Moment, Wildest Dreams — an amazing string of masterpieces, most of which have not even been produced in the U.S. (never mind Broadway; not even Off, or in the regionals). Over here, Ayckbourn is still best known for his earlier, lighter-weight comedies, like Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests, and for his high-concept stage gimmicks (one weekend at a country house replayed three times from three different rooms, for example, in the Norman trilogy). This has only affirmed his typecasting as a clever boulevard farceur — rather than, more accurately, as a profound chronicler of the human tragicomedy, an incisive social satirist and intrepid stage innovator, surely our best living playwright.
He is still going strong at 79, and thanks to the invaluable 59E59 Off-Broadway company, New Yorkers have been able to see many of Ayckbourn’s recent plays, in productions directed by the playwright himself for his home company in Scarborough, England. A couple of recent offerings have been lesser works, and I was beginning to fear that age is finally catching up with him. But the latest 59E59 import, A Brief History of Women, shows that Ayckbourn is still in top form.
As usual, he starts out by setting up strict stage parameters. The play is made up of four scenes, spaced exactly 20 years apart, starting in an English manor home in the mid-1920s — which becomes, by turns, a girls boarding school just after World War II, a community arts center in the turbulent ’60s, and finally a boutique hotel in the gentrifying ’80s. The eras are linked by one character — Anthony Spates, a 17-year-old servant in the manor house, who becomes a teacher at the school, the administrator of the arts center, and finally owner of the hotel. The title is somewhat ironic, since the play is less a history of women than of the self-effacing Anthony’s encounters with them — the females who variously enchant, ensnare and love him over the decades.
The play is both funny and poignant, perfectly balanced, with light brushstrokes of social commentary and feminist history. But what struck me most, on this go-round with Ayckbourn, is how thoroughly (unlike so many current playwrights) he conceives of his work as theater creations — not with showy gimmicks, but with the simple confidence of a man who believes that the medium and the message are inextricable. So, in this case, we have one set, divided into three parts — on the left a study, on the right a ballroom, in the middle a sort of anteroom, through which characters move back and forth, opening and closing imaginary doors, with sound effects that rise and fall as the rooms are entered and exited. For each new scene, the furnishings are altered — the study becomes an office, the ballroom a school auditorium — in full view of the audience, with an economy of movement that belies the drastic changes from era to era.
The transformation for the last scene is done with such amusingly precise choreography that it actually gets applause. Leave it to Ayckbourn to create a play in which even the stagehands become stars. A small thing, perhaps, but worth savoring — like this warm and winning play.