London Hosts a Bevy of Well-Written Plays
Compelling, original texts undergird a flourishing West End season
FANS of British theater carry on about the quality of the acting and directing here, but when it comes to writing, local audiences and visitors alike often ask, ``Is it getting any better?'' The surprising answer is a resounding ``Yes.''Skip to next paragraph
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For openers, there's Alan Ayckbourn, happily back at the top of his form. When the managers of the Royal Shakespeare Company (the National Theatre's rival) took one look at his play Wildest Dreams, they grabbed it - and for good reason. It may be the playwright's darkest tale yet, but it is also riveting, original, and in this production, masterly directed by the author.
Ayckbourn specializes in throwing together individuals or families who would never otherwise meet. In ``Wildest Dreams'' he populates a middle-class home, a basement apartment, and a cramped attic with three sets of misfits, each of whom undergo a slow metamorphosis at the hands of the most unlikely of catalytic agents: Marcie, a passive-aggressive snoop.
Marcie persuades the loners that fall under her spell to throw off their ``chains'' and break free from the relatives that have kept them in psychological prisons. What lifts this play above so many of Ayckbourn's other conceits is, first of all, its fascinating set of characters, several of whom come close to losing their sanity; and second, a theme that is worthy of them - the unwitting complicity of the weak and the strong.
We watch in both horror and mirth as four monsters - a super-critical wife, an abusive husband, a nasty brother-in-law and a nagging mother (heard, but not seen: a delicious touch) tyrannize their nearest and dearest.
Ayckbourn plays with our own credulity and love of game-playing. Clues are not so much tossed out as flung at us from every direction, concealing or revealing precisely what the author wants us to know. Your eyes don't dare leave the stage for one second. After two uproarious near-seductions and one successful one, Ayckbourn slows down the roller-coaster ride just long enough for a few tender moments before racing to a climax. It shouldn't be believable, but it is. Ayckbourn is often dismissed as a mere facile ``entertainer''; this play is far more. It makes us stop and think where we look to find our heroes and heroines.
Ayckbourn may have had some imitators through the years, but none that should be taken seriously, certainly none that could combine laughter and terror as skillfully. Yet during my visit, a new play opened at the Hempstead Theatre, one of London's top off-West End theaters, that begins where Ayckbourn - or perhaps Joe Orton - leaves off.
The play is called Dead Funny, and while the critics perversely referred to it as a comedy, it is so deep and so dark that it would have to be labeled ``a comedy of pain.'' Its author is Terry Johnson, who drew considerable attention to himself last fall with a play called ``Hysteria,'' which imagined Salvador Dali visiting Sigmund Freud. ``Dead Funny'' will transfer to the West End, opening April 6.
Once again, the playwright serves as his own director and one hardly knows which to praise first: the subtlety and skill of the writing or the brilliantly calibrated direction that deals with sexually explicit scenes without the audience feeling that the sex has been introduced for prurient reasons. The author knows his words carry shock value but they spew forth because of ghastly internal pressures that build and build before our eyes.
British critics have described the work as an uncompromising portrait of male sexuality. It's a valid enough description, but I would say rather that Johnson has borrowed the structure of Edward Albee's ``Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?'' Johnson does not present his contrasting couples in an academic setting but against the background of collective admiration for the television comic Benny Hill, whose re-created routines provide the evening's ``entertainment'' and whose unexpected (off-stage) death puts a sudden and lethal pall over the evening.