Playwright-director Alan Ayckbourn understands everything about comedy—except, apparently, what it means. Private Fears in Public Places, Ayckbourn’s latest play, shows off both his impeccable skill as a comic craftsman and the strange emotional absence that tends to leave American audiences blank at his displays of craftsmanship. Performed by his home company, the Stephen Joseph Theatre of Scarborough, visiting America for the first time as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, the production reveals Ayckbourn as also a crisply knowledgeable director and a skilled hand with actors: Everyone in his six-member cast gives a fully rounded, touching, and precision-timed performance.
The depth of the acting makes the central absence all the eerier. Private Fears in Public Places is an elaborately linked string of circumstances involving six wistful “little people” whose affectional relations aren’t all they should be. As they variously fail, betray, evade, or disconnect from one another, in a range of comic or tragicomic ways, the impression arises that Ayckbourn sees humans as a variety of organic Lego blocks, capable of linking to each other in various absurd ways but lacking any notable individual characteristics or motives. Full of ingenuity, his vision is devoid of dramatic focus. As the abstract title implies, Private Fears in Public Places isn’t about anyone or anything in particular; it’s a sort of sociological report given in cartoon terms. Since much of the action occurs in the privacy of the home, the title even implies a certain inconsistency in the report itself, suggesting that Ayckbourn’s preoccupation with thematic linkages has made him forget that his subject matter consists not of statistics but of people.