August 21, 1998

An Ayckbourn Comedy Has a Rough Crossing
By Linda Winer. STAFF WRITER

COMMUNICATING DOORS. By Alan Ayckbourn, directed by Christopher Ashley.
With Mary-Louise Parker, Patricia Hodges, David McCallum, Gerrit Graham,
Candy Buckley, Tom Beckett. Sets by David Gallo, costumes by Jess
Goldstein, lights by Donald Holder. Variety Arts Theatre, Third Avenue
at 13th Street. Seen at Wednesday's preview.
IT'S SUMMER STOCK time - even Off-Broadway - which means some
heretofore edgy New York actors have put on their phoniest English
accents to play dress-up in slick, mechanical claptrap about absolutely
nothing at all. This sort of ancient fluffball cannot even make it on
Broadway these days, yet here it is, taking up precious space in the
arena once idealized as an alternative to the commercial grind.
"Communicating Doors," which opened last night at the Variety Arts
Theatre, is far too genial and lightweight a project to justify more
than generic indignation. Trouble is, the play isn't by some hack who
cranks out comedy "thrillers" for what's left of the dinner theater
circuit. The thing has a pedigree, a playwright whose output promises
more than a style exercise for the theater's bright kids - and not
quite still kids - to work on during summer vacation.
But we overreact. You see, "Communicating Doors" is by Alan
Ayckbourn, the bogglingly prolific - and genuinely ambitious -
English playwright who has had few of his 53 works produced in this
country. Although fabulously successful back home, his intricately
crafted dark comedies have tended not to travel well.
Earlier in his career, he was wrongheadedly marketed to Americans
as Britain's Neil Simon. But Ayckbourn's trademark has been the gadget
play, scripts that operate on several structural levels at once. The
best, including "Woman in Mind," make the psychological puzzles more
important than the plot devices.
"Communicating Doors," alas, is not one of those. The play, number
49 of his 53, ran almost a year on the West End. It is a murder-mystery
thriller, a sex farce and a time-traveling fantasy. It is also pretty
flabby entertainment.
Make that brightly done flab, which means it is stylish trash with
very little beyond plot machinery on its busy mind. Christopher Ashley,
the gifted director of off-kilter comedies, has assembled a lovely cast
to go slumming in a genre toward which we're sure we're supposed to feel
tender and nostalgic. Perhaps some do.
The most delightful moments - so long as you don't get serious
about the waste of effort - come from Mary-Louise Parker, last seen as
half of the damaged but complicated and complicitous incestuous couple
in Paula Vogel's Pulitzer-Prize winning "How I Learned to Drive."
Parker, who didn't get to do the role when the play was staged in London
this summer, is instead playing Poopay, the wary English dominatrix
whose assignment in a posh hotel turns into a trip down the rabbit hole
- or, more precisely, into the time machine. She exists in the year
2018, but gets the chance to change history in 1998 and 1978.
The gimmick is the communicating door, the usually locked door
that we always assume connects to the adjoining hotel room. Only this
time, the door twirls around to move a rich man's dead spouses - this
is a sort of "Dead Wives Club" meets "Back to the Future" - over
20-year intervals. A bidet also plays a pivotal role in the
convolutions. That seems foreign enough from the start.
Poopay, who calls herself a "specialist sexual consultant," is a
lost child, and Parker, who seems smart even when playing dumb, is never
less than fun to watch. She first wears a Carol Channing wig and a
leather - don't call it rubber - bustier. (The costumes, by Jess
Goldstein, are almost characters in themselves.) At first, Parker puts
on one of those affectless, heavy-jawed faces of bimbos everywhere, but,
even then, there is that snarl-smile that looks like a cat when someone
annoys her whiskers.
But she is hardly slumming alone up there. With her is Patricia
Hodges, who plays the second wife, Ruella, with an adorable combination
of dignity and virtuosic slapstick. Maybe actresses need to get these
farce muscles warmed up every now and then. But for what?
David McCallum - yes, the long-lost man from "U.N.C.L.E." - is
extremely adroit as the befuddled house detective. Candy Buckley gets to
play ingenue and the snob she grows into as the first wife, Jessica.
Gerrit Graham doesn't manage to make the bad guy seem more menacing than
a monster in the house, while Tom Beckett is more convincing as a young
man than an old one.
Ayckbourn makes tentative gestures toward saying something about
the changing times. There are nonchalant gun battles in the streets
outside the 2018 hotel suite (designed with obsessive conventionality by
the never-conventional David Gallo). But nothing is ever made of the
world outside the murdering little lives of these time-traveling
trivialities. That, and some good comic timing, may be enough for a lazy
August night. But we'd hate to see this script when the community
theaters get it.

Copyright 1998, Newsday Inc.