Confusions, written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn currently at 59e59 Theaters, is part of 59e59’s Brits Off Broadway season. The production’s title refers to the mental and emotional confusion in which people can mire each other and themselves. As such it is an apt “handle” for the loose compilation of five one-act plays, each unique yet all threaded together by a different character from one play to the next and by themes of muddled miscalculation, incorrect assumptions, and hapless mash-ups between and among characters with humorous, bizarre and zany results.
That the characters are unable to straighten out any of their messes, or even recognize that they are immersed in twisted logic, squatting in self-deception, makes for hysterical yet thoughtful theater. Ayckbourn aficionados understand that he characterizes such behaviors as linchpins of the human psyche which, when examined, lead to startling and convoluted conclusions. The human mind often doesn’t manifest any recognizable principles of rationality.
In Mother Figure, Drinking Companion, Between Mouthfuls, Gosforth’s Fete and A Talk in the Park, Ayckbourn explores the shadows that individuals harbor, especially those that lurk in the crevices of people’s defense mechanisms. The playwright/director cleverly creates situations which elucidate the minefields of human personalities, dangerous terrain that cannot be negotiated through a linear pathway of understanding. Thus, we walk away from Confusions laughing and shaking our heads in recognition and puzzlement. Ayckbourn’s characters (Elizabeth Boag, Charlotte Harwood, Stephen Billington, Richard Stacey and Russell Dixon adroitly and variously configure them) are a strange, zany and awkward lot. But then so are we, if we pretend to be forthright.
In Mother Figure, wife Lucy (a anxiety-blasted Elizabeth Boag), dumped by her perpetually traveling husband, hasn’t dressed for weeks. Caring for her three young ones has drained and muddled her. Motherhood is her identity; it has occluded her personality and femininity. When the neighboring couple, Rosemary and Terry (Charlotte Harwood and Stephen Billington), visit as the husband’s spies, Lucy relates to them as she does to her own children, offering treats and milk instead of alcohol, chips and dip.
It is a hysterical and believable confusion given her mental state. The irony is that her behavior unearths the muddle in Rosemary and Terry’s marriage, and when they argue abusively, she separates and councils them as she would two kids who won’t play nicely together. Ayckbourn clarifies that adults behave like emotional children without realizing it, assuming that numerical age shows adulthood, when in fact it is acting “adult” that demonstrates character and wisdom – at any age.
Drinking Companion is weirdly humorous because Harry’s (Richard Stacey) inept predatory flirtations at the bar of a conference hotel are typical of what happens when women and men get together, drink, lose control and let defenses slip. That’s what happens to the driven Harry, but nothing goes as planned for him. His poor judgment, misperception and self-satisfaction override any clever technique he may have with women. He is an abject failure moving in the opposite of any sexual direction with Paula (Charlotte Harwood) and Bernice (Elizabeth Boag). His behavior becomes laughable principally because he doesn’t realize how boorish he is. The women are not interested in an intimate encounter. However, the waiter who has been watching and listening may be. This is an innovative twist on an old tale of presumptive sexual conquest.
Between Mouthfuls cleverly spotlights the conversation between two married couples through the hapless eavesdropping of a waiter as he rushes to serve each couple seated at opposite ends of the dining room. Martin (Richard Stacey), who recognizes his boss and suggests they leave, is convinced by Polly (Charlotte Harwood) to stay. In an ironic twist, we hear the discourse only when the waiter (Stephen Billington is the same waiter as in Drinking Companion) takes their orders and serves them their drinks and food.
As he becomes a party to the heated conversations, we witness Mrs. Pearce’s (Elizabeth Boag) dawning realization that Mr. Pearce (Russell Dixon) has been unfaithful to her. Their outrageous and hysterical argument is topped only when Polly confesses a secret of her own to get a rise out of her husband who “never listens or pays attention to her.” The outcome is impeccably acted and a sheer delight as we and the waiter oversee the impending doom and surprising conclusion. This is classic, comedic Ayckbourn with sardonic humor, perceptive irony and unique plot convolutions.
The last two one-acts are Gosforth’s Fete and A Talk in the Park. The title of the latter is an ironic twist on “a walk in the park,” inferring ease. But in this one-act Ayckbourn is intentionally inscrutable and profound. The two plays are the pinnacles of the steadily evolving evening. Both take the themes of mash-up and misconception to new heights.
In Gosforth’s Fete, a typical town celebration is upended by Murphy’s Law: Everything that can go wrong does. It’s hijinks, slapstick and mayhem at their funniest; e.g. the sound system that hasn’t been working blares at 100% volume when secrets are being shared, realized too late by the speakers. This rendition of a town festival gone to blazes is an LOL satire of the archetypal characters one encounters in a local community, which is reason enough to become a city dweller.
A Talk in the Park is set in a park with four park benches and four characters. The plot congeals when one character asks to share a bench. With the silence barrier broken, proximity on the bench is interpreted as license to speak inelegantly on whatever subject is at hand. The loquacious one drives away the original bench holder who moves to the adjacent bench. We assume she just wanted to sit quietly in peace. Then Ayckbourn astounds with an intricate domino effect, all initiated by the first individual who inquired ominously, “Is anyone sitting there?”
The macabre scenario evolves humorously. This is not “a walk in the park,” but a few “talks” with no listeners. We realize that Ayckbourn’s metaphor runs as narrow as human beings’ tendencies toward imitation, hypocrisy and inability to communicate meaningfully, and as wide as principles of physics about object disturbance. The humor is in recognizing that these “everyperson” characters expect others to do that which they will not do themselves.
Confusions succeeds on many levels. The actors’ comedic timing and moment-to-moment dramatic skill inspired by the director/playwright never lose energy, substance or intention. The artistic design, the order of the plays in the program, the staging, sets and props, as well as the musical interludes between the acts are well balanced and stylistically inspiring. This is a fine production which manifests Ayckbourn’s acute vision throughout. It runs until July 3 at59e59 Theaters.