LONDON — The theater has always been a risky business. But few of its practitioners skate on thinner ice than Alan Ayckbourn.
For years, Britain's most popular playwright has followed a bizarre routine. First a new play is announced, a cast is hired, and tickets are sold. Then, with just weeks to go before opening night, Mr. Ayckbourn writes furiously.
During the chaotic weeks of rehearsals, the playwright has been known to deliver further pages of the script to the cast at the dead of night.
Ayckbourn enjoys the challenge, and the actors he has worked with over the past 30 years must be getting used to it.
Yet a different sort of challenge faces them in "House" and "Garden," respectively Ayckbourn's 55th and 56th plays, which recently opened in two separate auditoriums at London's Royal National Theatre.
Both plays have the same plot and characters. One takes place in a drawing room, the other outside in the garden. But what makes this a new departure in Ayckbourn's - or, probably, anybody else's - work is that they are simultaneously performed by the same cast in front of two different audiences.
Backstage, the actors have to dash with scarcely a moment's pause between the two sets. When a character from one play disappears offstage, a minute or so later he or she may have to step on the set of the other one.
Even that might sound reasonably simple were it not for the fact that the two auditoriums are not side by side with a common backstage area, but on different levels with a long corridor and a steep staircase to negotiate.
Teams of runners, separate stage managers wearing headphones, and closed-circuit television in the wings help to keep it on track. It takes about 90 seconds for actors to travel between the two stages.
Ayckbourn says he wrote "House" and "Garden" in the same way that he wrote his early '70s hit "The Norman Conquests," in which the same events were seen from different perspectives in three plays. "I obviously had to keep very close track of where my characters were. The nightmare that nearly happened was that I'd finished with all the actors in one theater and nothing going on in the other," he chuckles.
"House" and "Garden" trace a day in the life of a rich, adulterous businessman whose two-timing brings him his comeuppance. It's familiar territory to Ayckbourn fans. For almost 40 years, the secret lives of the English suburban middle class have provided him with a rich source of farcical comedy.
But under the surface of respectable normality lurk many a tale of infidelity, broken marriages, alcoholism, and silent grief. Ayckbourn says he is still mystified at being pigeonholed as a comedy writer. "I don't quite know why I'm still known as Mr. Funny. If you look at the end of some of my plays, like 'A Small Family Business,' there's a girl dying upstairs from an overdose of drugs, and the family are celebrating downstairs."
From his first big hit, "Relatively Speaking" (1965), Ayckbourn has based his artistic policy on one unwavering principle: First, attract an audience. "The myth that you have to write simplistically for the masses is so patronizing," he says. "Audiences love to be challenged."
The extraordinary thing, given the narrow social focus of his plays, is how far they travel. He is second only to Shakespeare in terms of the number of times his plays are produced around the world, with translations in 34 languages. Later this year, the National Theatre of Taiwan in Taipei will revive its national tour of Ayckbourn's "Communicating Doors" in Cantonese. In Germany, he is almost as big as he is in Britain.
Ayckbourn says one of the reasons is that most of his comedy doesn't come from dialogue.
"Most of my comedy comes from character or situation or an inappropriate juxtaposition of people," he says. "I'm wracking my brains to think of a funny line from 'House,' but I don't think there is anything. 'No!' is quite funny at one point, but not taken out of context...."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society