The New Leader, Sept 7, 1998 v81 n10 p23(1)
Communicating Doors. (New York, NY)_(theater reviews) Stefan Kanfer.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1998 American Labor Conference on International Affairs

A CURRENT THEORY holds that Alan Ayckbourn is the pseudonym of at least two playwrights, a Mr. Alan and a Mr. Ayckbourn--and possibly a great many more. On the face of it, the notion sounds plausible enough. A writer (or a factory) by that name has become one of Great Britain's most effective cottage industries, turning out 53 plays within the last couple of decades, plus more productions scheduled for London and New York.

Every now and then a publicist tries to market Ayckbourn as "The American Neil Simon." But the title is a misnomer and never catches on. Still, the mistake is understandable. For like Simon, the Briton is a prolific master of situation comedy who is forever discussing matters of life and death--and then covering them with jokes, as if embarrassed by his own gravity. But unlike Simon, he rarely restricts himself to plays about middle-class expectations. Instead, under the guise of farce, he audaciously experiments with time and space.

It would, I think, be more accurate to call Ayckbourn the British M. C. Escher, whose drawings stand perspective on its head. The Norman Conquests trilogy, for instance, covered the same events from three different viewpoints. How the Other Half Loves shuttled between two dinner parties on consecutive days, with the same guests and very different outcomes. Bedroom Farce jumped around three bedrooms, set alongside each other. A Small Family Business occurred simultaneously on several floors of a house. In Ayckbourn's latest American production, Communicating Doors, characters exist in three separate time periods.

We begin in the year 2018. Poopay (Mary-Louise Parker), a self-described "specialist sexual consultant" visits a hotel suite. Caparisoned in leather and studs, she is there to service a decrepit client, Reece (Tom Beckett). Or is she? The ailing old man seems less interested in diversion than in confession. To that end he hands Poopay a strange handwritten paper. In detail it describes how Reece got rid of his wives. No sooner has she read the incriminating document than a menacing personality enters the room. Julian (Gerrit Graham) is Reece's psychotically protective bodyguard--who actually did away with wife number one, Jessica (Candy Buckley) and wife number two, Ruella (Patricia Hodges). As he closes in for yet another kill, Poopay heads for a closet, slams the door--and abruptly finds herself thrust 20 years into the past (i.e. the present day).

The room is the same, but Ruella is now alive and awaiting the arrival of her middle-aged husband. Poopay describes the incident that took place back in the future. The potential murderee listens doubtfully; Reece just doesn't seem the type to terminate people with extreme prejudice. On the other hand, Jessica did die under mysterious circumstances... To humor the younger woman, and to allay her own fears, Ruella enters the magic closet. She emerges in the year 1978 (the time machine tends to go in reverse). Convinced that Poopay was telling the truth, Ruella attempts to alter her own fate and those of the young Reece and the younger Jessica. Frantically, she enlists the aid of Harold (David McCallum), the hotel's security officer. Harold is only too happy to help, as long as he can line his pockets en route. Ruella is forced to submit to extortion. For if she fails in her mission, all three women will be as dead as vaudeville, an art form that is readily recalled by the goings-on at the Variety Arts Theater.

As the beleaguered lady of the evening, Parker is both poignant and brash, a mixture she used in her previous off-Broadway star turn, How I Learned to Drive. With a light touch (and heavy makeup), Beckett adroitly plays a man in various decades. Hodges is an angular farceur on the order of Carol Burnett; Buckley makes the most of a small, decorative role; Graham hulks with the high style of a Grand Guignol villain; and the wry McCallum seems not to have changed a hair since his days as Ilya in the '60s TV series, The Man from U.N. C.L.E. Their hilariously agitated movements are paced by director Christopher Ashley, who employs David Gallo's spooky set and Jess Goldstein's costumes to fine effect.

Although the play ventures into the field of social and political commentary--the London of the future seems to be engaged in a long-running civil war--Communicating Doors generally goes no deeper than the veneer on the hotel furniture. No matter. Processed though it is, this latest work from Alan Ayckbourn Ltd. remains a lot funnier than half the productions uptown, downtown and all around. If Japanese car manufacturers taught the West anything, it is the importance of quality control in any rapidly produced product. Whoever he (or it) is, this particular exporter has learned his lesson well.