Once again the Brits Off Broadway series at 59e59 Theaters brings us a new play written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn. Nearly six decades into his career, Ayckbourn maintains his sure touch on both the page and the stage, while his depictions of the long view of life continue to deepen. Brilliantly written and beautiful acted, A Brief History of Women engages both heart and mind.
The play’s inventive conceit depicts a man’s life in parallel with successive incarnations of a manor house. In the first of four scenes set at 20-year intervals, local farm boy Anthony Spates (a wonderfully understated Antony Eden), age 17, is a part-time servant in 1925. Downton Abbey fans will recognize the major reckoning with societal change the landed aristocracy had to negotiate after the Great War, represented here by the conflict between Lord Edward Kirkbridge (Russell Dixon), a grouchy old Victorian relic, and his significantly younger, feminist wife Caroline (Frances Marshall).
The live “jazz” music is too loud at the Kirkbridge Manor party where flighty daughter Cynthia (Laura Matthews) is attempting to celebrate her engagement to war medic Captain Fergus Ffluke (Laurence Pears). Alas, Lord Kirkbridge is monopolizing the politely overwhelmed young man in his study, from which the women of the household are barred.
Silently bearing a drinks tray, young Spates witnesses the whole thing as Caroline’s frustration with the men’s absence explodes into a crisis that becomes a touchstone in the servant’s life. Prospects dramatically improved, he reappears after 20 years, now a teacher at a girls’ school that has inherited the manor. Now “Mr.” Spates, our otherwise unassuming hero and a fellow staffer (Matthews) engage in a recklessly public though internally complicated love affair that ends in spectacularly fiery fashion and boots Spates off in yet another direction.
Each scene features the same cast playing new roles—except Eden, who is always Spates, aging 60 years with apparent ease. The third scene reveals him managing an arts center that has taken over the manor, looking after the lights and the locks as comically creative denizens cavort histrionically through emotional extremes both real and configured.
The leader (Dixon) of the resident children’s theater troupe has the play’s only song, a hilarious drag number. Marshall displays great skill at pretend-bad acting, while Pears plays a militant young Marxist way beyond the hilt. Meanwhile the quiet and now thoroughly middle-aged Spates, witnessing another troubled marriage, stumbles into an unexpected romance with an unhappy wife (Louise Shuttleworth) touched off by a pas-de-deux between two halves of a stage cow à la Gypsy.
While Spates is the consistent figure, the play lives up to its title. It’s the women who form the focal points of the three main scenes: Marshall as the 1920s suffragist; Matthews as the deeply sensitive and sexually aware young woman of the 1940s; Shuttleworth as the wronged spouse finally taking her destiny into her own hands in the volatile 1960s. All this structural and conceptual inventiveness comes full circle in the touching final scene 20 years still further on, when a surprising reunion takes place in what was once Lord Kirkbridge’s study and an icon of women’s suppression, now an innocent bedroom that quaint hotel the old manor house has now become.
Kevin Jenkins’s compact marvel of a set conveys the house’s hoary magnificence despite giving us only one complete room. It also fluidly transforms as the building’s usage dictates (in one instance so cleverly as to raise a cheer for the stagehands). Similarly Jenkins’s costumes, plain and formal, clearly and sometimes aggressively of their time, seem to meld with the characters’ manners and mores. Indeed there is an organic wholeness to the production, especially remarkable given the time-shifting structure and the persistence of only one character.
The cast quickens the colorful personalities they play even though each figure has only one (albeit meaty, except for the last) scene. In the 1965 scenario, the insolent socialist and the stage manager with terminal ennui are caricatures. But the other figures in each age emerge in realistic complexity and Wildean spiritedness.
A Brief History of Women, a production of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, runs in New York through May 27 as part of 59e59’s Brits Off Broadway 2018 series. Tickets are available at 212-279-4200 or online.