The title of Alan Ayckbourn’s new play (his 537th, I’m estimating) sounds both grandiloquent and self-effacing. However, the name is quite accurate. In four parts that span seven decades, Ayckbourn sketches a portrait of a man who has had, in some ways, a fairly brief history with women. We see his first kiss; a romance cut tragically short; a cozy, late-in-life marriage; and finally, a bittersweet reunion from his youth. The overall effect is both epic and blushingly slight. In other words, perfect Ayckbourn.
Our hero, Antony Spates (Antony Eden) is no womanizer or lusty roisterer. He’s a polite, decent boy of 17 who grew up on a farm and now, in 1925, is a part-time servant at Kirkbridge Manor. The first act is a wind-up to a hilariously drunken row between Lord Kirkbridge (Russell Dixon), a wheezing, bigoted old boozer and his much younger wife (Frances Marshall), who has had enough of his physical and emotional abuse. As Spates nervously hovers in the background clutching a salver and waiting to make a discreet exit, he overhears the seedy secrets of the house. Part of the fun is watching Spates’ deliciously restrained reactions – just the tiniest widening of eyes at a slung slur – as the household devolves into chaos.
Making the protagonist somewhat of a passive fly on the wall is a tactic that Ayckbourn has used before, notably in My Wonderful Day (also at 59E59 in 2009). It’s a clever way to get exposition out of the way and involve the audience through a likeable proxy, to whom the other characters are forever unpacking their souls or projecting their fears. Eden, handsome but unobtrusive, is a wonderful foil for the institutional goings on around him.
Each act jumps ahead 20 years. In Part 2, Spates is 37 and back at Kirkbridge Manor, which has been repurposed as a preparatory school for girls. Schoolteacher Spates has embarked on a tender if frowned-upon liaison with fellow teacher Ursula Brock (Laura Matthews). She lost a fiancée during an air battle in WWII and still obsesses over the dead navigator. In classic Ayckbourn style, this faculty comedy-drama is both sweetly romantic and zanily morbid (a denouement that involves a delusional Ursula and a large firework display).
After intermission, Parts 3 and 4 take us into Spates’ autumn years, as he washes up yet again at the same manor – which has been turned into an arts center in 1965, and then a luxury hotel in 1985. Along the way he finds himself a wife (Louise Shuttleworth), loses her, and potters along as best he can. Despite his project’s broad time frame, Ayckbourn doesn’t bother commenting on how English society changed from the 20s to the 80s; he lets the fortunes of Kirkbridge Manor speak for the country at large. In fact, the play seems less about how women have had an impact on Spates than how he’s lived his life in the shadow of this edifice for 60 years.
Directed with unfussy warmth and efficiency by Ayckbourn, the six-member cast includes Laurence Pears in a number of swaggering, bossy men’s roles. The ensemble juggles its diverse characters with elegance and wit, and Eden ages neatly from green youth to mellow pensioner with grace. Simon Slater’s synth-heavy scene-changing music is played far too loudly, but perhaps this is out of consideration for the declining ears of Ayckbourn’s average spectator. No argument, A Brief History of Women is an old-fashioned comedy from a master of middlebrow farce, but there’s something to be said for its humble, humane craftsmanship. Fans of Ayckbourn and British class humor should leave fairly satisfied. They can’t all be wild, hot-blooded affairs.
David Cote is a theater critic, journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in New York.