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.''
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.
When ``Dead Funny'' comes to the United States, which is inevitable, it will take a genius of a director to match the performances of the original cast. For the time being, I will inscribe in my memory the names of Zoe Wanamaker and David Haig as the older couple, Danny Webb and Beatie Edney as the younger pair, and the touching Niall Buggy as the single older man.
Caryl Churchill is a playwright who virtually divides the trans-atlantic theater community. Some loathe her, others worship her. I loved ``Cloud Nine,'' ``Mad Forest,'' and the double-bill of ``Owners'' and ``Traps.'' On the other hand, I could barely sit through either ``Top Girls'' or ``Serious Money.'' Churchill comes out way ahead now, though, after courageously moving in a new direction with her latest work, The Skriker.
Blending ancient myths with a kind of Boschean surrealism, Churchill describes her title character as ``a shape shifter and space portent,'' but for this production the Skriker more nearly resembles a witch-dwarf who can change her shape, size, and even sex at will. For reasons that are never totally explained, the Skriker has developed a lethal fixation on two young women.
With language that is alternately spare and Joycean, Churchill and her director Les Waters fill the National Theatre's smallest stage with phantasmagorical shapes and sounds, though Waters obscures or overlooks many key points. (I didn't realize this until I bought the text of the play in the National's book shop and learned that it was far less obscure than this production suggests.) A strikingly original score by the distinguished composer Judith Weir helps evoke the feeling of a dark world haunted by the specter of a great shadow. War? AIDS? Metaphorical possibilities abound; Churchill leaves it to you to supply your own.
David Hare has inspired a similar range of feeling in both America and Britain. His may not be an innovative talent, but he is certainly skilled. The National Theatre's artistic head Richard Eyre staged three of his plays this season and referred to them as a trilogy, although there are no interconnecting themes. What they share in common are Hare's attack on law, politics, and the church.
Absence of War, the only one of Hare's plays still in repertory at the National, is a strong play about a combustible subject: politics. A thinly disguised portrait of Labor leader Neal Kinnock, it attempts to document, with merciless honesty, precisely why ``the best and the brightest'' don't always make it to the top positions in government. The playwright followed Kinnock around for months in the recent election for Prime Minister, which Kinnock lost to John Major.
The result of Hare's research is passionately involving and infuriating, as it's meant to be. Hare and director Eyre make you feel you are there - in the trenches, watching contemporary history unfold. I can't imagine the play generating great interest in the US, but I was pleased to learn that the third Hare play - and by all reports, the finest - ``Racing Demon'' (about the church) will come to both Los Angeles and New York in the l994-95 season.
I can't close this first half of a midwinter London theater report without noting my affection for a rediscovered play by the late Daphne du Maurier, the author of ``Rebecca.'' I never knew du Maurier to have written anything other than novels dramatized by others, but it was a pleasant surprise to find that her 1948 romance, September Tide, has much to offer, even though it is a soap opera in every sense of the word.
In ``September Tide,'' a mother falls in love with her daughter's new husband, who can't wait to paint her. It all takes place down by the water, with the sounds of tide, gulls, and buoys. Of course, Mom eventually gives him up (what self-sacrificing mother wouldn't?) but oh, the internal struggle! With Susannah York as Mom and Michael Praed as the young husband, it's just the thing for a rainy matinee - that is, if you're ready for a short nostalgic trip to the past.
Leave it to the British to polish up old silver and sell it as new. Or better yet, as a treasured antique.
* The London season report continues with a discussion of acting highlights next week.