August 21, 1998 New York Times

'Communicating Doors': Backpedaling, Comically, Into a Menacing Future

Don't even think of putting up a struggle: Mary-Louise Parker is irresistible in "Communicating Doors," Alan Ayckbourn's comic thriller of men with blood on their hands and women with time on theirs.
Her last stage appearance, in the Pulitzer Prize-winning "How I Learned to Drive," found Ms. Parker the wounded party in a story of sexual victimization. This time, she's the highly compensated sexual aggressor, a jaded London prostitute named Poopay who stumbles into a murder plot that sends her, care of an extremely unique set of hotel doors, traveling back in time.

When she first enters David Gallo's plush mock-up of a room at the Regal Hotel in blond bob, dragonfly tattoo and skin-tight patent leather, Ms. Parker looks as if she's ready for anything, perhaps even a cameo in "The Night Porter." But when she is cornered in a bathroom by a menacing hotel guest played by a hulking Gerrit Graham, Poopay's charade strips rapidly away, and all that is left is an anxious little moppet with a riding crop.

"I'm a dominatrix," the moony-eyed actress declares, in a delightfully puny, defensive voice.

The naughty-girl lost-girl duality in Ms. Parker's comic performance is such that your heart goes out to this misguided soul, whips and chains and all. And her Poopay is all the more impressive given that "Communicating Doors," which opened last night at the Variety Arts Theater, is not exactly rich in character detail.

The play, about a quarter-inch deep, is an inventive but not a brilliant diversion. It's minor Ayckbourn, the kind of pleasant entertainment that's ideal for a rainy afternoon when you're feeling cooped up and in need of something to take your mind off the stack of bills and sink full of dishes.

Mr. Ayckbourn, whose plays are worked out with the intricacy of whaling ships carved in scrimshaw, is riffing on a staple of the British stage, the parlor murder mystery, though "Communicating Doors" is not so much a whodunit as howdo theygetoutofit.

One of the playful notions is that the unchanging hotel room is actually three distinct settings in the years 2018, 1998 and 1978, reached via the connecting, or communicating, doors between rooms that serve as an unlikely time machine. Poopay and the two other heroines, played by Patricia Hodges and Candy Buckley, travel back and forth in time in a literal race against the clock: they are trying to rewrite history and prevent their own violent ends.

The race begins when Ms. Parker, in the London of 2018, is hired for an evening at the Regal by a pair of odd characters, Julian (Mr. Graham) and Reece (Tom Beckett), the latter a wheezing and desperately ill old man apparently desirous of one last fling. But once Reece gets Poopay alone, he reveals his true intention: he wants her to co-sign his confession to the murders of his wives Ruella (Ms. Hodges) in 1998 and Jessica (Ms. Buckley) 20 years before that.

Julian intrudes, Poopay escapes into the vestibule and somehow triggers the time machine. The lights go down, the doors spin and suddenly it's 20 years earlier. Ah, but like an elaborate board game that can be learned only by playing it, there are unforeseen rules in time travel. Poopay apparently can only travel back 20 years, and Ruella, in turn, 20 years back to Jessica's time.

It's the kind of painstakingly devised plot, so specifically designed for one set of circumstances, that you either buy or you don't. And the kind that, when it plays itself out, compels you into arguments about its logic. How come only 20 years? Why can't the house detective, the enjoyable David McCallum, time-travel, too? Does the whole world change as a result of Poopay's and Ruella's tinkerings with history, or just the lives in question? (There are enough subtle touches along the way, including a seeming political disintegration of the city, to keep you looking for telling details.)

Stage comedies that try to keep a straight face about the murderous element in their stories are deceptively difficult to pull off. The laughs have to be as well-crafted as the twists. Fortunately, Mr. Ayckbourn has both the patience for this sort of construction and an ear for the devilish one-liner. But it may be too early in the life of Christopher Ashley's less than crackling production to expect the well-oiled ensemble work the play's machinery calls for. There is something lacking on the sinister side, especially in a long expository first scene that fails to establish any palpable tension or suspense.

Part of the problem is that while Ms. Parker is fetchingly believable in her role, not everyone is cast quite as well. In a play so dependent on crispness, the lapses tend to stand out and an audience's confidence is undermined. Mr. Beckett, for instance, is far too callow for Reece, even though he begins the play as a man of 70 and must also play a 30-year-old. In makeup as an old man, he actually manages to look 20. Mr. Graham, too, saddled with the lugubrious villain's role, all but trudges across the set with arms outstretched like Frankenstein. Watching Mr. McCallum make such easy work of the befuddled hotel security man, Harold, you find yourself wishing that he could have played all the male parts. The women fare better. Ms. Hodges, in a role that apparently won acclaim in London for Julia McKenzie, gets right the brutality of upper-class English charm. Her Ruella has enough pluck for a squadron of R.A.F. pilots -- she's even pleased to learn from Poopay, in a well-that-settles-that sort of resoluteness, how she's supposed to die. And Ms. Buckley finds a Fergie-like freshness in Jessica. The three women are particularly good in an extended slapstick scene on the room's balcony; Ms. Parker's rubbery contortions, as she and Ms. Buckley hold on to Ms. Hodges for dear life, convey exactly the kind of desperate absurdity Mr. Ayckbourn is after.

Even if gags like these seem recycled from other plays and movies, "Communicating Doors" finds a certain virtue in a marriage of gimmickry old and new. As is often the case with Mr. Ayckbourn, all the tumblers eventually fall into place.