Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How good is Alan Ayckbourn, anyway?

The sardonically seductive author.

Gloucester Stage's new production of Alan Ayckbourn's Table Manners is remarkably strong; so strong, in fact, that it bumps up against the inevitable question about this prolific British playwright:

Just how good is Alan Ayckbourn, anyway?

But first, there's really no question that Table Manners, the "first" part of the stage triptych The Norman Conquests, is an effective entertainment. There's likewise no question it's a startling achievement in stagecraft: the sexual conquests of the eponymous Norman orbit each other across three separate scripts but a single time frame; in fact each comedy takes place in a separate room of the same country house over the same weekend. And the scenes in the separate plays all click together like a dramatic Rubik's cube; given a turntable set, they could be acted together in interconnected sequence - and indeed, a full, seven-hour version recently played (in the round) in New York to rave reviews. This interest in teasing apart and pasting back together what used to be called "dramatic unity" is typical of Ayckbourn - How the Other Half Loves, for instance, brilliantly stitches together two separate times in the same place.

But if Ayckbourn expands the structure of dramatic possibility in one way, he seems to almost shrink it in another. For there's also no question that embedded in his modest farces are echoes of truly great dramatic literature - Table Manners sometimes mimics The Cherry Orchard, in fact, and Chekhov in general seems to hover over much of Ayckbourn's oeuvre like an ancestral ghost. The only problem is that the Russian master haunts the playwright's achievement as well as his characters.

For if Chekhov's great theme was 'weakness,' then Ayckbourn's, to be honest, is simply 'smallness.' It's not that his characters fail in their passions - it's that they don't really have passions to begin with. There's no grand manner in Ayckbourn, and no grand manor, either, as there's no gentry left, just the bourgeoisie: and they live in apartments, hotel rooms, and cramped little houses, where the only manners on display are "table manners," i.e., codes of consumption. And the playwright is pretty rigorous in his diminished expectations - in play after play, the food isn't very tasty (in Table Manners, it all comes out of tins - and a "salad" is a single lettuce leaf); the furniture is second-hand, and even the romantic getaways are to places like "East Grinstead."

Of course there's no romance anymore, either, just sex - so no "romantic getaways," just "dirty weekends." And as in life, so in drama: Cyrano de Bergerac has given way to No Sex Please, We're British. In a way, Ayckbourn is the poet, or perhaps the critic, of that decline - only he never really leaves the sex farce behind; instead, he beautifully limns its limits. Designed for the theatres in which he once worked, his scripts remodel their repertory staple without ever altering its basic floor plan; the new additions and wings operate as just more apartments and hotel rooms, nestled above, under, and within each other like so many nesting Russian dolls. The structure gets bigger, but the scale remains the same.

This sense of trivial iteration makes it easy to dismiss Ayckbourn as "the British Neil Simon." But that quip is problematic for several reasons. The first is that Simon, too, could be quite good, in plays like Lost in Yonkers - more telling is the fact that while Simon occasionally summoned the seriousness for something more than a sitcom, Ayckbourn has been remarkably consistent over the years; his work may be repetitive, but it's generally of the same pretty-high quality. Which means Ayckbourn regularly achieves a sense of real drama - the characters are drawn deeply and sympathetically enough that we understand everyone's point of view, and realize that no one is entirely in the right; at several points in The Norman Conquests, for instance, we can feel whole systems of feeling, and maybe even philosophy, pivoting on trivia.

Ayckbourn also has a subtle political dimension that's both liberating and reactionary - something which Simon relentlessly eschews (more on that later). And he's completely happy with unhappy endings - Table Manners, like most of his "farces," ends with a stab at freedom that feels somehow like a downer, because we know its promise can't be real. And that may be the gist of Ayckbourn - in his world, passion and hope and liberty and even art are all false dreams that he and we know can't be realized. Seen that way, his very smallness is of a piece with his aesthetic; form and function are as one in Ayckbourn. And isn't that supposed to be a good thing?

Like many a critic, I'm not completely convinced by my own argument - but something tugs at me about Ayckbourn; he can't really be dismissed just because he's limited and dispiriting, and just because he insinuates that the dinner theatres are right and Shakespeare and Chekhov are wrong. How you feel about him may reflect how you feel about Reg, one of the characters in Table Manners who's obsessed with building balsa-wood models of airplanes. Intricate and beautiful, they're obviously metaphors for the plays themselves, and smart, sardonic Reg is probably a factotum for Ayckbourn, too (tellingly, he's cuckolded - seemingly - at play's end). One feels the defeat implicit in Reg's pastime - why doesn't he try to work on a real plane? But at the same time, balsa wood models are beautiful when perfectly rendered - and who hasn't peered at a perfect one in admiration?

The talented cast of Table Manners. (Eric Levenson)

Up at Gloucester Stage, Table Manners is pretty nearly perfectly rendered, too. Or at least its imperfections hardly matter. Several members of its solid cast - Steven Barkhimer, Sarah Newhouse, Richard Snee, and Jennie Israel in particular - are doing their best work in recent memory, and director Eric C. Engel has drawn from them, and from his whole ensemble, a beautiful sense of - you know, ensemble. Here and there I wished for a bit more shading on this or that aspect of this or that character - I loved Barkhimer's impish wit as Norman, for instance, but wondered if there shouldn't be a slightly stronger twist of bitters beneath it. Meanwhile Barlow Adamson is perhaps slightly too credible as a possible beau for another disappointed character. And one actor, Lindsay Crouse, is miscast, but covers for it with an impeccably detailed performance that almost convinces you she's got the character's inner conflict goin' on, too.

I had a few other quibbles - the set, in which everything was at the wrong angle, worked as a kind of obstacle course for the actors (which is very Ayckbournian), but its metaphor was a bit obvious - and one poor audience member actually took a spill over it, too. And though Engel rendered the surface of the script beautifully, he didn't quite pull off - in part because of Ms. Crouse's miscasting - whatever emotional resonance can be wrung from its big twist, when its most sexually-judgmental character suddenly succumbs to Norman's rather-resistible charms. There's more pathos to be found there, or perhaps more punch - at any rate more something.

But what gave the evening real resonance was, oddly enough, what a friend of mine summed up with the comment, "This play feels dated now - and that's what's interesting." I couldn't have agreed more. Ayckbourn's whole conception of Norman - immature and irresponsible and innocently selfish, but still fighting for spontaneity and life - recalls a masculine ethos that today has been utterly crushed; nowadays, masculinity is defined by either power or pathology, but not by poetry. And maybe more's the pity. Norman's seductions (of even his wife's sister!) do seem contemptible, until we meet his wife Ruth, one of Ayckbourn's most brilliant creations: Ruth is sympathetic and strong, and calmly competent and utterly suffocating. To her, romance is faintly ridiculous in and of itself. And if a play can be construed as a reflection of a pitched cultural battle, then there's no denying that since the debut of Table Manners, the Ruths of this world have won. Indeed, when I perused Louise Kennedy's review in the Globe, I felt a weird frisson of recognition: this was Ruth talking. But can any artist actually predict his critics? Perhaps in his next Rubik's-cube-style script, Ayckbourn might consider including the audience, too.