Photo: Sara Krulwich



June 22, 2016: “Do you think we could have — done something?” The words hang awkwardly in the air in “The Healing,” a moving, beautifully acted new drama, by Samuel D. Hunter, about friends gathering to mourn a woman who took her own life. Presented by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, a company dedicated to promoting the work of artists with disabilities, the show, which opened on Wednesday at the Clurman Theater, features a cast of mostly disabled actors. Set in a small town in Idaho — the regular stamping grounds of Mr. Hunter, author of “The Whale” and “The Few” — the play, directed sensitively by Stella Powell-Jones, unfolds in the clean but tchotchke-cluttered living room of the deceased woman, Zoe, an obsessive TV shopper. It’s the evening after the funeral, and some of Zoe’s old friends have gathered to sort through her things (she left no close family), and to sort through their sorrow. As children with disabilities of different kinds, they all went to the same Christian Science summer camp, where they were taught by its leader, Joan (Lynne Lipton), to believe, as Sharon (Shannon DeVido), the most sharp-tongued among them, puts it, “that there was something spiritually wrong with us.” Sharon, who was perhaps closest to Zoe, disavowed her childhood faith when she was 13, and along with some of the others, eventually campaigned successfully to have the camp shut down. But Zoe (an affectingly sincere Pamela Sabaugh) remained a believing Christian Scientist. In one of the seamlessly integrated scenes set in the past, Zoe, nagged by a case of strep throat, tries to persuade Sharon to pray with her. “You have a gift,” she says. “God gave you a gift of healing.” She reminds a frustrated Sharon of an incident in their childhood, when Zoe believes that Sharon’s prayer helped heal her after a fall. Sharon, played by Ms. DeVido with a veneer of sardonic toughness covering an innate sensitivity, pushes back. “I didn’t heal you when we were kids, and I can’t heal you now,” she snaps. (But she did, we learn, by secretly slipping antibiotics into Zoe’s food while she was visiting.) Mr. Hunter writes with lively humor and grace, depicting the awkwardness and grief that hover in the air among Zoe’s friends. These include Donald (played with gentle warmth by David Harrell), who’s closest to Sharon and tries to comfort her, despite his own feelings of guilt. Bonnie (a forceful Jamie Petrone) arrives in a flurry of apology, having been unable to get to Idaho in time for the funeral, along with her boyfriend, Greg (John McGinty, nicely playing the genial outsider in the group). Bonnie, in fact, hadn’t been told that Zoe committed suicide, and is angry and dismayed when she learns the truth. She gets the unpleasant news from Laura (Mary Theresa Archbold), a blunt-spoken associate professor of Baltic studies at the University of Montana. Ms. Archbold nails her bone-dry humor: During an awkward conversation with Greg, who’s deaf, Laura says, “I shouldn’t take Vicodin and interact with people.” Ms. Archbold also delivers a particularly fine monologue, about returning to see the institution in Latvia where she spent her early years before being adopted. All of the characters with disabilities are drawn with layered naturalness; you quickly forget that they face challenges most people do not as their exchanges focus on issues that affect everyone: jobs, relationships (or lack thereof), feelings of moral inferiority and anxiety, the solace of religious faith (or the lack thereof) and plain old garden-variety sadness, the kind that some can move through and others, like Zoe, cannot. Although its temperature remains fairly sedate, “The Healing” rises to a quiet emotional climax with the unexpected arrival of Joan herself. Ms. Lipton is wonderful at expressing Joan’s abashed air of apology as she timidly enters the room. Her soft, high voice seems to contain a plea for sympathy — or at least tolerance — from what she assumes will be a hostile reception, particularly from Sharon, who was angry at Donald for even inviting her to the service. But Mr. Hunter surprises us in the touching final scene between these two former adversaries. Both were friends of Zoe’s, and while Sharon cannot help accusing Joan of being partly responsible for her death, the conversation doesn’t stop there. “The Healing” leaves us with a comforting intimation that, just as tragedy can strike us out of the blue, healing can come just as unexpectedly, and from unlikely sources, too.



OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Out of the Mouths of Babes

out of the mouths

June 19, 2016: A more appropriate title for “Out of the Mouths of Babes,” a new play by Israel Horovitz that opened on Sunday at the Cherry Lane Theater, might be “Dead Man’s Harem.” In this improbable and eventually even fantastical comedy, enlivened by an excellent cast including Judith Ivey and Estelle Parsons, four women who have all been involved with the same man gather to mourn him in his Paris apartment. First on the scene are Evelyn (Ms. Parsons) and Evvie (Ms. Ivey), who exchange polite conversation that becomes somewhat less polite when Evelyn learns that Evvie used to be called Snookie — a nickname bestowed by the man they both loved (whose name is never mentioned). It was Snookie who broke up Evelyn’s marriage to the man. The portrait that emerges of this lifelong womanizer is not a very appealing one. He met all the women in his life, it appears — and there were many, including his first wife, the original Snookie, who killed herself after Evelyn came along — when they were students attending his literature classes at the Sorbonne. Serial predator, one might call him today. Plus: He refused to do dishes. But apparently, and we must take it on faith, he was irresistible, at least to the young women dazzled by his intellect and sophistication. While Evelyn and Evvie are discussing their past, the name Janice crops up. It’s confusing, but apparently Janice slipped in when Evvie was over, but then Evvie came back. Enter Janice (Angelina Fiordellisi), a decade younger than Evvie (who’s 68 to Evelyn’s 88). She is startled to learn that both Evelyn and Evvie received email invitations to the funeral from an unknown woman, and were even given plane tickets so they could fly from the United States. Janice had to read about her former husband’s death online, and invited herself. She’s so upset by this information that she heads straight to a window and tries to jump out — echoing an act of years before, when she discovered her man was back with Evvie and tried to kill herself. Fortunately, this time, too, she fails, when Evelyn and Evvie pull her back from the brink. (The frequent jokes about suicide strike a rather sour note for a comedy.) The mystery of Janice’s non-invitation is solved when a fourth woman enters the apartment the next day: Marie-Belle (Francesca Choy-Kee), bubbly and younger than Janice by two decades, who reveals that she was the last to marry the dead man. Warmly apologetic, she explains that she hadn’t realized Janice was still, er, available. (The implication is she thought Janice was dead.) More peculiarly, Marie-Belle matter-of-factly says that she and her husband remain in communication, causing three pairs of eyebrows to rise — not counting those in the audience. Mr. Horovitz has written more than 70 plays, including “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard” (for which Ms. Ivey earned a Tony nomination in 1992) and “My Old Lady” (in which Ms. Parsons has appeared, and which Mr. Horovitz recently turned into a movie starring Maggie Smith). “Out of the Mouths of Babes” is not among the most substantial, though it offers roles that snugly fit all four actors. Evelyn has the sharpest tongue, and Ms. Parsons, with her tart acerbity, makes the most of it. When Janice solemnly reflects that she has “never chosen men who make me happy,” Evelyn replies, “There’s possibly no such thing as men who make women happy.” Earthy and funny, tilting between sympathy and smiling antagonism, Evelyn has moved far beyond the emotional tumult of her relationship with the dead man. So has Evvie, whom Ms. Ivey imbues with a wry warmth. (Rather bizarrely, Evvie, Evelyn and Janice all came from Boston; apparently the departed Lothario had a thing for New England women.) Evvie never married, preferring to sleep with married men, and eventually established a career writing for television. Janice, on the other hand, still seems susceptible to the tug of old associations. As played with an amusing air of self-seriousness by Ms. Fiordellisi (who is also the artistic director of the Cherry Lane), Janice, who apparently has made several suicide attempts over the years, keeps sliding toward sadness. Evelyn and Evvie are never quite sure she won’t make another dash for the window. And Ms. Choy-Kee brings an easy radiance to her performance as Marie-Belle, making her giggling suggestions of continued sexual relations with her dead husband more amusing than distasteful. She also imbues the character with a sweet, wide-eyed naïveté, so that when Marie-Belle reveals she invited the others not just for the funeral but also to stay and live with her in the apartment, you accept this odd idea as being sincere — as opposed to insane. Although the acting, under Barnet Kellman’s direction, keeps things lively, and the growing camaraderie of the women suffuses the stage with a mild congeniality, “Out of the Mouths of Babes” lacks dramatic drive and has only an intermittent comic bite. To distract yourself from unhappy reflections on the actors’ superiority to their merely serviceable material, however, you can bask in (or sigh in envy at) the lovely set by Neil Patel, an airy loft whose high walls are covered from top to bottom in artwork. A program insert identifies all of the artists, and they are oddly assorted, with an emphasis on paintings and photos by boldface names. I happened to know that Joel Grey was a gifted photographer and artist, but was surprised to learn that Rosie O’Donnell, Eve Plumb, Billy Dee Williams and Tina Louise also moonlighted as painters. “Out of the Mouths of Babes” may not be a major play, but it doubles as an unusual gallery show.



feature tomb

June 14, 2016: Confining life to four pen-and-ink panels won’t keep the demons at bay. The three-dimensional world has a willful way of creeping into and subverting the two-dimensional comic strip at the center of “The Tomb of King Tot,” the sweet and spiky new tragicomedy by Olivia Dufault, which opened on Tuesday night at the Wild Project as part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks festival. The same invasive process could be said to be the ruling dynamic of this latest offering from the inventive author of “Year of the Rooster,” the 2013 cult hit presented from the perspective of a jittery bird bred for cockfighting. As directed by Portia Krieger, with sets by Carolyn Mraz, “King Tot” the play is often hard to distinguish from the comic strip of the same name, which is penned by an insular and obsessive New Englander named Jane Haley (Annie McNamara). Ms. Dufault’s characters, like those drawn by Jane, at first come across as paper-thin and too precious by half, summoned into existence for the sake of punch lines that usually take the form of seriously lame puns. These seeming stick figures provide an instant, Cap’n-Crunch-flavored nostalgia rush for those who grew up devouring the funny pages along with their cereal every morning and now feed their addiction as grown-ups by watching Adult Swim and “The Simpsons.” Like such animated television fare, “King Tot” exists in a precisely regulated, self-contained universe, with its own laws of physics, geography and anatomy. The five pitch-perfect cast members assembled here often suggest how Homer and Marge, or the fretful souls of a Roz Chast illustration, might function if they were translated into flesh and blood. This is true, even — and especially — of Ms. McNamara’s bendy-bodied, bespectacled Jane, whose expressions and postures exude the effect of deft, single-stroke line drawings of antic attitudes frozen in midgesture. At times, she seems far less fluid than her beloved fictional creations, King Tot (Bianca Crudo), a tantrum-prone 9-year-old ruler of ancient Egypt, and his long-suffering and devoted slave, Horemheb (Nick Choksi). It is these two who open the play, moving among the three comic-striplike windows that form the back of Ms. Mraz’s rendering of Jane’s living room. They have jointed puppet bodies (Tilly Grimes did the costumes) and converse in dialogue that is typically an elaborate, shaggy-sphinx setup for the thudding joke of the final frame. Those jokes are truly terrible. (Example: Tot tells Horemheb he would like a new set of shoes to be made from the bodies of slaves. What would they be called? “Mandals.”) But they are sources of endless delight to Jane, who is first discovered rolling with merriment — in the aisle of the theater – as she admires what she hath wrought. You don’t have to look far for Jane’s immediate sources of inspiration. The same performers step out of the frame to morph into the other residents of Jane’s home. Ms. Crudo doubles as Jane’s perverse, demanding 16-year-old daughter, Atlanta — who gets her thrills from the toxicity of the permanent markers she uses to adorn her body — while Mr. Choksi rematerializes as Porter, Jane’s too-obliging doormat of a partner. True to her artistic breed, Jane spends more time with her imaginary family than her real one, especially once she receives a letter announcing she is a finalist for the coveted Chuckling Willow, “the single most important award for cartoonists in all of Eastern New England.” It is given by the venerable Lionel Feather (Brad Bellamy), “the laugh master of New Hampshire!,” and puts Jane in direct competition with her devious frenemy, Kissy Candida (Carmen M. Herlihy). So far, so cute, right? Or as Kissy, who drops in on Jane unexpectedly, squeals in pleasure: “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh. So much whimsy!” But whimsy, it turns out, comes in black as well as brighter hues. Soon the shadow of darkest tragedy falls over Jane’s world. (It assumes the physical form of spilled ink.) Ms. Mraz, who is great at finding visual equivalents for Jane’s assorted fancies, comes through big time here. Jane responds by digging ever deeper into her work and ignoring the solemn social duties that life has thrust upon her. “The Tomb of King Tot” is no longer the lighthearted strip it once was, though. Its tone becomes increasingly morbid, and imagery from the Egyptian Book of the Dead starts to play a significant role. Animating an artist’s work to mirror her (or his) life is by no means uncommon in theater. (The Tony-winning musical “Fun Home,” adapted from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, comes to mind.) Ms. Dufault’s variation on the theme, however, is strikingly bold and assured. The sensibility that shapes both her play and Jane’s comic strip are pretty much identical. Even this work’s signal tragic event is drawn with the fey, absurdist details of comic-book ontology. A naked corpse, for instance, is discovered wearing Tweety Bird socks, and a truck at the scene of the crime is festooned with a sticker showing a Celtics mascot urinating on the Statue of Liberty. Such descriptions may cause you to echo, less gleefully, Kissy’s cry about “so much whimsy.” But this production makes a case for whimsy as a filter both for shutting out and eventually coming to terms with an unforgiving world and one’s unforgivable self. All religions that allow people to press on through this old vale of tears are ultimately personal. “King Tot” suggests that packaging such beliefs in a dopey comic strip doesn’t make them any less useful, improbable or profound.


OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour

June 14, 2016: NEW HAVEN — Repression begets rebellion, particularly in teenagers. This simple equation is dramatized with exuberant humor in “Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour,” a small-scaled musical about a group of Catholic-schoolgirls-gone-wild being presented at Yale Repertory Theater here as part of the city’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas. A coproduction between the National Theater of Scotland and Live Theater, Newcastle, the show was written by Lee Hall, who wrote the book for the hit musical “Billy Elliot” and adapted “Shakespeare in Love” for the West End stage, and is based on Alan Warner’s novel “The Sopranos” — published in 1998, before that title became indelibly attached to a certain television series. The music, played by a live trio, is wonderfully if weirdly eclectic, including classical snippets by Mendelssohn, Bach and Ralph Vaughan Williams but also a handful of songs made famous by the 1970s pop-rock group Electric Light Orchestra. Oh, and the finale of sorts is the Bob Marley staple “No Woman, No Cry.” All are sung by the six gifted young women who make up the cast, portraying members of the chorus at a Roman Catholic school in a small city somewhere in Scotland. We first meet them when they are dressed demurely in their school uniforms, preparing for a trip to Edinburgh to participate in a choral contest that will be nationally televised. Before the uniforms come off, to be replaced by far racier ensembles, it becomes clear that these young women are not Mother Superior’s notion of an ideal schoolgirl. Their talk circles around sex, frankly, obsessively and often vulgarly: who did what with whom, who wants to do what with whom. As they travel to the city by bus, the girls gulp down booze disguised as soda. While excited at the prospect of a day in the capital — with their afternoon free, they are planning a “massive pub crawl” — they are hoping to be back in time for the last dances at their favorite local club, the Mantrap, although technically they are underage. The set, by Chloe Lamford, vaguely suggests a seedy bar or club, with a couple of tables piled high with cups and bottles. On the wall at the back is a small statue of the Virgin Mary, looking aptly mournful, as if lamenting the antics taking place before her. Five of the girls form a tight-knit club within the chorus. Fionnula, “the cooler” (Dawn Sievewright), is the alpha girl, nominally the leader of the pack although she eventually reveals her insecurities. Orla (Joanne McGuinness) has had a bout of cancer but has recently come back from an apparently successful trip to Lourdes and is desperate to make up for lost time, sexually speaking. Kylah (Frances Mayli McCann) sings in a rock band, though she’s planning on dumping it. Chell (Caroline Deyga) has had “a lot of tragedy in her family,” but we don’t learn much about it; like the others, she talks mainly of sex. Manda (Kirsty MacLaren) has been living with her “da” since her mother left the family — although Kylah puts it more colorfully. Not part of the group is the more strait-laced Kay (Karen Fishwick), whom Fionnula cattily describes as “stuck-up, sugar wouldn’t melt in her mouth, off to university”; she’s a year older than the rest and restrained, though when she runs into Fionnula in the city she’s enticed into overindulging. It takes some time to adjust to the thick Scottish accents and the lashings of slang. (It was an even greater challenge in the novel.) “Dinnae scum uz out,” for example, roughly translates as “Don’t gross us out” — I think. But the vibrant performances and the show’s raunchy good humor draw you in. Directed at a brisk pace by Vicky Featherstone, “Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour” unfolds as a series of vignettes interspersed with music, with the girls tearing across the city in search of, well, mostly booze, but also boots and, of course, men. (The cast play various other characters they meet along the way, too.) “Our Lady” is not a particularly orderly show, reflecting the behavior of its characters. The songs often seem to come out of nowhere, although “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” one of the E.L.O. songs, is presented as a karaoke performance. (The girls’ knowledge of the band is explained by Kylah’s dad being a fan.) And perhaps not surprisingly, the girls don’t take much time for introspection. The most revealing scene is the one between Fionnula and Kay. Fionnula has secretly followed Kay into a bar — she has a bit of a crush on her, and is envious of her going to college — and as they get increasingly drunk on tequila shots, Fionnula opens up about her sense of limited possibilities. “We’re just a tiny percentage of what we could have been,” she says. “No matter who you are you go through life and you never do what you could have done. Most of your life is left unlived.” The line quickly slips past, and a soused Kay and Fionnula are back in the girls’ familiar groove of scandalous tale-telling. But it movingly hints at what lies beneath the reckless behavior: a sense that the opportunities the future promises are few, and meager. Why not embrace the here and now with as much fearlessness as you can muster?


OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Taming of the Shrew


June 13, 2016: Everybody runs wild in Phyllida Lloyd’s riotous, all-female production of “The Taming of the Shrew,” which opened with a rebel yell at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park on Tuesday night. But don’t mistake freedom of movement for freedom itself. These frenzied folks are all living in a state of captivity, whether they know it or not. It seems utterly apt when the tamer of the title, Petruchio (the fabulous Janet McTeer), shows up for his wedding day with a pair of pink handcuffs dangling from his wrist. Of course, at this point, he doesn’t understand just how much the joke is on him. Since this is a play about courtship, you might be tempted to call its inhabitants prisoners of love. But no, they’re prisoners of sex. I mean the kind that you have to check in boxes marked “M” and “F” on official documents. In recent years, Ms. Lloyd — the British director whose eclectic stage credits range from “Mamma Mia!” to the Broadway revival of “Mary Stuart” — has proved herself a master of using women to plumb the murk of manliness in Shakespeare. For the Donmar Warehouse in London, she created inspired, all-female productions of “Julius Caesar” and “Henry IV” (which traveled to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn). These interpretations, set in a women’s prison, cannily used the perceptible distance between actresses and their roles to point out the artificiality of masculine posturing. Such traits, it seemed, could be donned the way a female impersonator might put on false eyelashes and high heels. To say that Ms. Lloyd’s take on “Shrew,” the most notoriously prickly of Shakespeare’s depictions of love as a battlefield, is not as subtle as those earlier ventures is putting it mildly. It’s both sillier and more seriously, overtly political. But this production — which features a vibrant Cush Jumbo as Petruchio’s unwilling bride, Katherina — also uses the idea of theatrical role-playing to suggest how wearing masks can both entrap (in real life) and liberate (on a stage). This is as true for the actresses playing women, whose attire is largely limited to either prom-style or baby-doll dresses, as for those playing men, with their bound breasts, business suits and muscle shirts. (Mark Thompson did the costumes.) Even Ms. McTeer’s Petruchio, who dresses and struts like an aging rock star who’s constantly monitoring his testosterone level, starts to look as if he couldn’t wait to slip into something more comfortable. Though Shakespeare wrote “Shrew” as a play-within-a-play for a drunk named Christopher Sly, Ms. Lloyd has come up with another framing device. That’s a beauty pageant, in which women vie for the title of Miss Padua. Mr. Thompson’s set brings to mind a threadbare traveling circus, with its fading striped bunting and quaint peeling trailers. (Kitschy images of the Madonna-whore dichotomy of womanhood abound throughout.) But there’s something strangely topical about the voice of the unseen M.C., who comments, barker-style, as scantily clad contestants tap-dance, sing and twirl batons. Doesn’t he sound kind of like the man behind the Miss Universe pageant, currently moonlighting as a presidential candidate? This election-year “Shrew” obviously makes no pretense of being nonpartisan. It even features a stand-up routine in which one of the cast members (Judy Gold, as Gremio) steps out of her role (while remaining in character as a man) to comment on the indignity of serving a female director (and perhaps even a female president). But even with such interpolations, Ms. Lloyd’s streamlined “Shrew” (a bouncy two hours, with no intermission) manages to tell Shakespeare’s original tale with briskness and clarity. And without disrupting its governing tone of a carnival-cum-political-rally, it sheds a bright light on patterns of language and behavior in the play. That includes the idea of women — including Katherina and her sister, the pouty Bianca (Gayle Rankin) — as market commodities, to be bought and bargained for. (The show is punctuated with the sight of cash-filled briefcases.) And I had forgotten the extent to which this play uses the common Shakespearean device of people’s pretending to be other people to achieve their goals, a stratagem that acquires new layers when these duplicitous men are portrayed by women. (The joyful cast members, who wear their masculinity without a burlesque wink, include Rosa Gilmore, Adrienne C. Moore, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Donna Lynne Champlin.) These plot-propelling disguises feed a larger notion of doubleness, which finds its most eloquent embodiment in the lanky person of Ms. McTeer. Known for her virtuosic turns in such classic roles as Nora in “A Doll’s House” (for which she won a Tony Award) and the title character of “Mary Stuart,” Ms. McTeer here gives us a Petruchio who is both a brazen caricature and an unnerving psychological study. From the moment he makes his entrance, fresh from what appears to be yet another one-night stand, this Petruchio clearly relishes being perceived as one wild and crazy guy. But there’s a sense of strain within the swaggering persona. As Petruchio proceeds to woo, marry and subdue (through deprivation and humiliation) the rebellious Katherina, his eyes grow more feverish and uncertain. I found myself thinking of Mark Rylance’s Hamlet, when the prince’s assumed madness seemed to teeter on the abyss of genuine insanity. Ms. McTeer’s Petruchio is an outsize comic portrait, but there’s a glimmer of tragedy in her gaze. Ms. Jumbo, a rising British stage star internationally known for her appearances on “The Good Wife,” finds the natural woman in Katherina. The default anger feels like a perfectly logical response to the way a woman in her time and place is treated. But she also gives us (as much as the truncated text allows) an awareness of Kate’s developing attraction to Petruchio, and you can feel her trying hard to go along with his imperious demands without submerging her own strong personality. She delivers Kate’s always unpalatable final speech, about a wife’s duty to her husband, with an edge of increasingly anguished doubt. “What am I doing here? How did I get here?” she seems to be saying. (In fact, in this production she actually does more or less say that, but never mind.) And in a way, that S.O.S. has been broadcast throughout by everyone onstage, including Petruchio. For the finale, the cast members tear open their shirts and, figuratively or literally, let down their hair for a gleefully angry rendition of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.” Whew! Their relief at finally being unconfined lights up the night.




June 13, 2016: Consider the mystery of the toy train. This industriously chugging mini-locomotive winds its way through “Hero’s Welcome,” Alan Ayckbourn’s 79th (you read that correctly) play, which just opened at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival. In a work that includes all manner of dire deceptions and betrayals, which seem guaranteed to end in tears if not in bloodshed, that little train set — which runs through the entire house of a mayor and her husband — may not seem like such a big deal. But this is a play by Mr. Ayckbourn; nothing is too small to bear revelatory weight. The toy train and its elaborate accouterments, the pride of a middle-aged man and the despair of his tolerant wife, initially register as one of those quirky, colorful details with which comic playwrights define their characters. But by the end, this seemingly incidental plaything suggests the full dimensions of a relationship, a tragic chapter in its history and, for one character, a fate that may well be worse than death. Little things mean a lot in the world of Mr. Ayckbourn, whose “Hero’s Welcome” runs in repertory with his “Confusions,” a bill of linked sketches written 30 years earlier. (Both productions originated at his home base, the Stephen Joseph Theater of Scarborough, England, and are directed by the author.) The wife and husband described above, played by Elizabeth Boag and Russell Dixon, aren’t even the central figures in “Hero’s Welcome.” That would be the hometown hero of the title and his foreign war bride, embodied by Richard Stacey and Evelyn Hoskins. Yet so deft is Mr. Ayckbourn’s dramatic shorthand that he can summon complete, quirkily detailed back stories for not one but three intersecting couples in a single, standard-length play. He manages to do so while engineering an elaborate plot, as full of twists and secrets as anything by Ibsen, in which everybody lies, including the British government. Mr. Ayckbourn, 77, has built one of the most prolific and successful careers in British theater on the premise that there are no small parts, in life or onstage. In multiplay masterworks like “The Norman Conquests” and “House and Garden,” he keeps shifting points of view, so that characters hitherto in the background suddenly dominate the foreground. And no matter what their positions on the canvas, these people are usually as sad as they are funny and vice versa. The zesty appetizers that make up “Confusions” (which despite being one of Mr. Ayckbourn’s most performed works is only now having its New York premiere) demonstrate that this writer’s sensibility was fully formed 32 years ago, when he was a mere stripling in his mid-40s. They’re trifles by his later standards, quick-sketch farces programmed to end with zingers. But these five one-acters also allow you to see clearly the basic building blocks from which Mr. Ayckbourn constructs his more complex works. And even the silliest of them is steeped in the critical yet compassionate sensibility — call it sentimental cynicism — that is uniquely their creator’s. The best-known of these is the rowdiest, “Gosforth’s Fete,” in which a village fair is leveled by both a thunderstorm and raging human incompetence. My personal favorite is the first on the bill, “Mother Figure,” in which a homebound housewife has become so used to dealing only with her inexhaustible children that she treats any adults who enter her home as if they were toddlers. Ms. Boag plays the Mom (pricelessly) in that one, and Charlotte Harwood and Stephen Billington are the couple who live next door. All three show up in different roles in the subsequent playlet, set in a small-town hotel, with Richard Stacey appearing as the absent father from the first play. Mr. Dixon joins their ranks for the third play, and the entire cast of five is recycled for the evening’s duration. That’s one of the primary joys of “Confusions,” watching chameleon performers change identities with wigs and accents, while locations are transformed by the rearrangement of simple pieces of furniture. (Michael Holt is the designer.) But there’s also the joy of seeing Mr. Ayckbourn casually play with perspective, as in a restaurant scene in which we hear only what a waiter (Mr. Billington) hears as he moves in and out of earshot between two squabbling tables for two “Hero’s Welcome” has no similar antics of technique. Though it is Mr. Ayckbourn’s most recent play, it is also one of this most old-fashioned. This tale of a soldier’s return to the town he left under shady circumstances years earlier has the structure of a 19th-century melodrama in which the sins of the past overtake the placid present. The plot’s combustible ingredients include a jilted bride, arson, and a vial of tranquilizers and a loaded gun just begging to be picked up. Yet “Hero’s Welcome” remains a comedy, at least in the sense that Chekhov called his plays comedies. Its characters are enjoyably silly in their pretensions and eccentricities. They are also capable of acts of genuine evil and genuine heroism. “Hero’s Welcome” is a crowded work, and not just because this production crams three detailed playing spaces — which portray the home turf of the play’s three sets of couples — onto a small stage. It has more twists of plot than a season of “Coronation Street.” But never make the mistake of thinking Mr. Ayckbourn doesn’t know what he’s doing. The dense, teetering structure of “Hero’s Welcome” is dictated by the dense, teetering class structure that still rules and stifles English life. Now throw an outsider into this insular society, and see if she sinks or swims or makes tidal waves. That’s Madrababacascabuna (the delightful Ms. Hoskins), the young wife of the returning hero, who looks like a natural victim. Baba, as her husband calls her, doesn’t speak English. Which leads to the expected malapropisms, as when she tells a woman whose house she has just entered, “You have a beautiful hole.” That hostess, a kind soul in a sour marriage, explains, “You’ll find that in our language there’s lots of words than can be taken in different ways.” Having to deal with all that linguistic nuance can be burdensome, of course, and that’s more or less true of any culture. Mr. Ayckbourn, gentleman that he is, has given Baba a vaguely Eastern European-sounding language he invented just for her. She approaches a closed world — one in which Mr. Ayckbourn’s characters are usually prisoners for life — with her own set of shiny new tools. That may sound like a handicap. But in “Hero’s Welcome” it’s the foreign visitor who has the advantage over the old home team that Mr. Ayckbourn has spent his fruitful career coaching into blunders.



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