In these dark times, by all means let’s be cordial about the light entertainments provided by Alan Ayckbourn, the veteran British playwright, who intermittently has sent to our shores over the last several decades such comical charmers as Absurd Person Singular, Relatively Speaking, Bedroom Farce, and House & Garden. Although not all of the prolific Ayckbourn’s eighty-plus plays have been seen over here, in recent seasons 59E59 Theaters has been presenting the American premieres of his latest works. 59E59 Theaters’ new Ayckbourn offering, part of its current “Brits Off Broadway” series, is A Brief History of Women, running through the end of the month.
Scarcely one of the playwright’s most adventurous or brilliant achievements, A Brief History of Women is an easygoing comedy-drama that resembles the sort of tea-cozy English television fare one usually sees programmed by Channel WLIW-21 and sandwiched somewhere between The Great British Baking Show and reruns of Are You Being Served? Structured in four parts, the play’s doings unfold within the venerable halls of Kirkbridge Manor, one of those stately homes of England that’s not quite as grand as Downton Abbey. Beginning in 1928, the play explores subsequent episodes that occur in 1945, 1965, and 1985, respectively, as the once-private mansion is transformed into a prep school for girls, then a performing arts center, and finally into a boutique hotel. Sticking with this establishment through each of its iterations is one Tony Spates (played by a pleasantly unassuming Antony Eden), who is sighted first as a teenage footman discreetly serving cocktails during a razzmatazz party.
The opening story observes Tony preventing the irascible, drunken lord of the manor from abusing his much-younger third wife, who has taken a shine to the amiable servant. The next segment, nearly twenty years later, finds Tony as a teacher at the girl’s school, romantically involved with an overly demonstrative colleague still spooked by a tragedy she suffered in the recently concluded war.
By the time the mid Sixties roll around, our Tony has a potbelly and an administrator’s job at the arts center. This most entertaining sequence offers a satirical look at provincial theater-making. It is dominated by Russell Dixon’s witty performance as Dennis, a preening middle-aged actor-director rehearsing an amateur production of a “Jack and the Beanstalk”–themed holiday show in which he stars as the hero’s mum in fairy-tale drag. After coyly cavorting through a flirtatious song-and-dance number, all naughty intimations and rolling eyes, Dennis gets into a row with a humorless young actor who takes offense at the script’s stereotypes and declares, “I’m not prepared to corrupt the minds of children by spouting fascist, Tory propaganda!” As the thespians quarrel, Tony lends a sympathetic ear to Dennis’s sadly neglected wife.
During the wistful final episode, the by-now-elderly Tony encounters once again a woman he fatefully met at that party back in 1928. Concluding the play with such a full-circle punctuation may seem a tad obligatory, but it dovetails nicely enough with the gentle content of everything that comes before. A Brief History of Women is unashamedly schematic, carefully written so that six actors can fill the roles in each sequence. It is confined to a single setting that, with minor alterations made between scenes, accommodates the action. All told, it is an ably composed piece of mid-twentieth-century boulevard-style theater of the traditional kind that older viewers complain no one ever writes anymore.
Neatly staged by the author himself, this production — imported to New York by the Stephen Joseph Theatre of Scarborough, where Ayckbourn served as artistic director for 37 years — is modestly designed and agreeably acted. While the play is a mostly straightforward ho-hum affair, it probably will amuse people who like to see in the theater the same sort of show they already know from the telly.