Oh, His Ayckbourn Feat
Mechanically brilliant as ever,
author fails to open 'Doors' of perception

COMMUNICATING DOORS. By Alan Ayckbourn. With Mary-Louise Parker, Patricia Hodges, David McCallum, Tom Beckett, Candy Buckley and Gerrit Graham. Sets by David Gallo. Directed by Christopher Ashley. At Variety Arts Theater.

Among the many foibles of the English is the belief that Alan Ayckbourn is a great playwright. His skill is so mesmerizing and his command of technique so total that this is not an entirely eccentric notion. If Ayckbourn had anything to say, it might even be a credible one.

But he doesn't and it isn't.

This production of "Communicating Doors" displays both Ayckbourn's stunning ingenuity and his unwillingness to put it to any very significant use.

'Communicating Doors'

As a technical exercise, the play is certainly impressive. It takes the basic elements of bedroom farce — doors opening and closing, people thrown together in different combinations — and creates two extreme variations.

One is that all the frantic movement is driven not by sex, but by fear of death. The three women who move in and out of the room are trying to avoid being killed by the same man. The other variation is that the room, for some unexplained reason, is the site of a time warp. One of the women exists in 1978, another in 1998 and the third in 2018.

By the Numbers

As a mathematical problem, this has a certain fascination. Watching Ayckbourn solve the equation is not a bad way to pass the time.

But beyond that, there isn't all that much. The form of the piece is too literal to be elegant. The only human relationship that has any depth is that between the 2018 woman, a prostitute in S & M gear, and the 1998 woman, a confident, no-nonsense upper-class lady.

In Christopher Ashley's efficient production, these two are played, respectively, by Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Hodges. Both attack the roles with great energy and find whatever depth they have. Both have moments when they are genuinely touching. But neither can get around Ayckbourn's smug assumption that the rich lady can save the fallen woman.

Elsewhere, David McCallum and Candy Buckley have some fun with the roles of the hapless hotel security man and the ditzy honeymooner in 1978.

All of them are held in check, though, by the production's failure to break free of the complex mechanics of the action.

Missing Ingredients

Capable as it is, Ashley's direction doesn't find the speed, the rhythm or the madcap playfulness that might keep the seams from showing. Only toward the end is there a sense that the actors are creating, rather than merely serving Ayckbourn's grand design.

It's that design that dominates, leaving us to reflect that while the doors communicate, the people don't.

Original Publication Date: 08/21/1998