Alan Ayckbourn. To be proper, Sir Alan Ayckbourn (since 1997) is one of the most celebrated contemporary playwrights in England and in the United States. Audiences have enjoyed his works in the West End, on Broadway, and in theatres around the world.
His latest, A Brief History of Women, is currently on the boards at 59E59th Street theaters as part of their Brits Off Broadway festival. One might hope for a droll comedy that is often associated with the scribe. Within minutes of this two and a half hour drama, however, one is wise to put that hope to rest.
It’s not for lack of interesting subject matter. The four-part memory play charts the loves and losses of Anthony Spates (Antony Eden) from his 1920s teen years at Kirkbridge Manor to his late seventies, where the venue has now been transformed into a hotel. In the forties, it was a Prep school. The sixties? An arts centre.
Along the way, he steals a kiss with a married Lady Kirkbridge (Frances Marshall), a colleague (Laura Matthews), and other ladies who play multiple roles. Though his entire cast hails from England, there is little authenticity to be found.
Kevin Jenkins’ set and costume design is a true mystery. Ayckbourn describes the manor as having, “dividing walls that are all invisible and all the doors are mimed.” He adds that “soundproofing between the areas is extremely effective.” I’m sorry, Sir. It’s not. On the contrary, it’s quite goofy and distracting.
Bad wigs dominate the aging process. Frequently, much of the scenery is chewed to the nub and is played as though it were an unfunny Saturday Night Live sketch.
Also curious is Ackybourn’s decision to invite negative commentary on homosexuality. When one character, Lord Kirkbridge (Russell Dixon) is suggested to be a queer, he responds with vehement rage. Later we learn that he “held strong views on homosexuality. Much of it involving hanging and horse whips.” Surely it was not an uncommon belief in 1925, but it fails to land well with modern audiences- particularly when it is simply a passing statement and not pivotal to the plot.
This is not to denounce the entire work. There are a few poignant moments. Yet they are lost amidst the rambling and unfocused dialogue.
Memory pieces can be quite lovely. After the curtain fell on A Brief History of Women, I was reminded of I Do! I Do!, the two-handed musical that charts the married life of a couple over 50 years. Bookwriter Tom Jones and Composer Harvey Schmidt packed this show with laughs, tears, and everything in between—and managed to keep us in our seats for only two hours.
Had Ayckbourn added music (aside from Simon Slater’s incidental score), I’d probably still be there—contemplating the efficacy of doorknob sound effects.