Published in KPBS On Air Magazine December 1991
He really “isn’t” the British Neil Simon, though heaven knows they’ve been compared enough times. (But he’s also been compared to Anton Chekhov, so go figure).
Playwright Alan Ayckbourn does have some commonalities with Simon. They’re roughly of the same generation; Simon’s 64, Ayckbourn’s 52. They’re both very prolific, churning out something like a play a year. They both have theaters of a sort. Simon’s had one named for him in New York , and Ayckbourn is artistic director of one in Scarborough , England . Both may be their country’s leading commercial playwrights, highly popular with mainstream audiences, but each has had some trouble in crossing the Atlantic . Simon has never been as popular in London ‘s West End as he is on Broadway, and Ayckbourn is better received in regional theaters than on the Great White Way . Both men, almost compulsively funny, are keen observers of middle class absurdities. But the nature of their comedy is extremely different.
Each may look at the hurt beneath the hilarity, but Ayckbourn’s humor often derives from situations, and Simon’s from one-liners. Simon has a forgiving, generous spirit toward his characters, and there’s always some sense of hope at the end. Ayckbourn can be a merciless cynic, and he makes you feel that things will never get much better than he shows them to be. While Simon’s slick bourgeois New Yorkers may suffer from some of the same ills as Ayckbourn’s characters — rocky marriages, calamitous dinner parties, recalcitrant children and in-laws — Ayckbourn’s folks are infected with a more deadly disease, what Sylviane Gold of the Wall Street Journal called “malaise anglais.” These people have terminal inertia, and they simply cannot cope, move forward, or redeem themselves. Underneath it all, there’s a thick layer of despair.
Case in point: “Season’s Greetings”, Ayckbourn’s 25th play, written in 1982, which is ushering in the holidays at Mira Costa College (December 5-15) and at North Coast Repertory Theatre (November 23-December 28). Here we have everyone’s worst nightmare of a family holiday gathering, where everything lives down to expectations. The play has all the manic requirements of farce (at which Ayckbourn excels, but Simon has only recently, in “Rumors”, tried his hand) — fast pace, unexpected sight gags, wickedly funny sexual capers, a tad of mistaken identity, colorful characters and a need for true ensemble acting. We see quarreling spouses, kitchen mishaps and an excess of alcoholic cheer. Satirical indictments of TV addiction, movie violence and boring hobbies. And then things take a sharp downhill turn and end on a disconcertingly harsh note. Not easy stuff to pull off.
“It’s a trick to find just how to justify this frankly very dark ending,” admits Mark Hofflund, the Old Globe’s Play Development Associate who’s directing the North Coast Rep production. “”Ayckbourn is a writer who doesn’t necessarily work with a long through-line. He works moment to moment. If you lay the little pieces of mosaic down, you get the big picture. But here, there seems to be one piece missing. We’re all on our hands and knees looking for it.”
Ayckbourn is known for his structural twists and turns, providing director and/or audience with multiple scenes, plays and endings to choose from, even complex diagrams of a play’s construction. Sometimes that conceit works more in the reading than in the watching. But North Coast Rep’s artistic director, Olive Blackistone, is undaunted. This is the fourth Ayckbourn play she’s brought to her theater in the nine years of its existence. Of course, Blackistone herself hails from Ireland , so she’s a bit partial to playwrights from the British Isles .
“There’s a specificity to humor, which usually doesn’t travel very well,” Blackistone confesses. “I think it’s an ethnic thing, it’s situational. But Ayckbourn writes about middle class angst better than most comic writers. Middle class marriages and the underlying dark tone in many relationships. It makes us all wonder about our own relationships.”
“These people are all rather plain, ordinary people,” says Hofflund. “They’re so universal we identify with them… Some of this piece is just hysterical. Like the puppet show in the second act. It had us all in stitches, rolling on the floor. Ayckbourn’s such an amazing writer that if we get the timing right, it plays itself. A lot is in the casting, too. If you have natural and believably funny people, half the work is done. And we certainly do. The cast is terrific.”
“The play is a farcical delight,” says Blackistone with a laugh. “”I can recall a few Christmases like that myself… There’s laughter and pathos. It’s a combination of comedy and near-tragedy.”
“Comedy is so much a juxtaposition of two exact opposites,” Hofflund explains, “a contrast so startling we laugh. Ayckbourn works with that like no one else.”
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.