Thursday, June 5, 2014

Ayckbourn Ensemble: Arrivals & Departures at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Bill Champion and Kim Wall in ARRIVALS & DEPARTURES.  Photo by Andrew Higgens
Alan Ayckbourn is a prodigiously talented playwright with 78 plays to his credit.  Now, in commemoration of his 75th birthday and in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the staging of one of his plays (Mr. Whatnot) in London’s West End, the Stephen Joseph Theatre is producing three of his works – Arrivals & Departures, Time of MyLife, and Farcicals: A Double Bill of Frivolous Comedies – as the Ayckbourn Ensemble at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of that theatre’s annual Brits Off Broadway program.

The first of the three, Arrivals & Departures, opened last night in its US premiere.  It is an intricately structured memory play in which the lives of Ez Swain (Elizabeth Boag), a troubled young female soldier, and Barry Hawkins (Kim Wall), a garrulous middle-aged traffic warden, intersect briefly in a London train station in the course of their involvement in the attempted capture of a terrorist.  Captain Quentin Sexton (Bill Champion), an acting Major in the Strategic Simulated Distractional Operations Unit (SSDO) has organized an elaborate plot to trap the terrorist; Barry, who previously encountered the terrorist has been helicoptered in to assist in his identification; and Ez is there to protect Barry.

This is really three plays in one.  The first, and simplest, involves the plot to capture the terrorist, a straightforward and rollickingly comic send-up of police, military, and governmental incompetence.  This one is considerable fun.  But the other two are far more interesting (albeit much less humorous): they are both memory plays, one delving into Ez’s history and providing us with an understanding of why she is so cold, controlled, and un-smiling, and the other revealing the hidden secrets of Barry’s past that have made him the man he is today.

In addition to Ez, Barry and Quentin, some thirty other characters, played by ten other actors, appear in the course of the play, including: Ez’s parents, her step-father, her former boyfriend and his parents; Barry’s wife and her parents, their daughter, and the best man and maid of honor at their wedding; the terrorist; younger versions of Ez, Barry and Barry’s daughter; and various members of the SSDO Unit.  They all do a fine job in switching seamlessly from one role to another and their professionalism is much to be admired.

But the play really belongs to Quentin, Ez and Barry.  Bill Champion as Quentin is splendid as the blustering and incompetent officer in charge of a gang that can’t shoot straight.  Elizabeth Boag plays Ez with controlled emotion.  And Kim Wall as Barry is absolutely the best of all: a terrific actor who brilliantly portrays the role of a trusting and loving man of honor and principle who accepts whatever life may have in store for him with grace and humor.

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