BWW Review: Zeitgeist Stage Company Sticks With Ayckbourn
Life of Riley
Written by Alan Ayckbourn; Direction & Scenic Design, David J. Miller; Costume Design, Fabian Aguilar; Lighting Design, Michael Clark Wonson; Sound Design, J Jumbelic; Stage Manager, Megan Deshaies; Dialect Coach, Lisa Rowe-Beddoe
Performances through March 2 by Zeitgeist Stage Company at Plaza Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com
Sir Alan Ayckbourn, arguably the world's most successful living playwright, is the recipient of both Olivier and Tony Awards. He is also extremely prolific, having now written 77 full-length plays, and Zeitgeist Stage Company is presenting the East Coast premiere and second American production of number 74, Life of Riley, in the Plaza Black Box Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. With this staging, Ayckbourn becomes the most-produced (four) playwright in Zeitgeist's 12-year history and keeps alive a fledgling annual tradition.
I wish I could say that I enjoyed this play as much as the previous years' offerings, but Life of Riley did not sit well with me. In fact, although it contains many comedic elements, it left me feeling down in the dumps. There are six main characters paired off as three couples, a minor character who is the teenage daughter of one couple, and George Riley, the unseen protagonist. Of all these, George is the most interesting and best drawn, probably because we see him from several different viewpoints when the others talk about their relationships with him. Aside from George, none of Ayckbourn's characters is likeable, all are one-dimensional, and spending two plus hours in their company was grueling.
Actually, George is not exactly likeable either, but everyone cuts him some slack because, as we learn early on in the play, he has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and has about six months to live. This news is received with varying degrees of concern by his physician Colin (Peter Brown), Colin's wife and George's former lover Kathryn (Maureen Adduci), his best friend from childhood Jack (Craig Houk), Jack's wife Tamsin (Shelley Brown), George's estranged wife Monica (Angela Smith), and her new significant other Simeon (Brooks Reeves). At the very least, the news gives them all pause, but it also causes them to reflect on their lives and the role played in them by George.
One aspect of Ayckbourn's genius that is on display is his ability to deftly interweave the individual storylines to create a complex paradigm connecting everyone in some way (six degrees of George Riley?). However, by the time the conflict created by George's immature behavior is fully exposed in the second act, the outcome has become obvious. We've seen this before and Ayckbourn did a much better job of it in The Norman Conquests. In Life of Riley, without being able to witness George's charisma, we have to wonder why everyone allows themselves to be at his mercy instead of giving him a good slap upside the head. Norman's antics are uber-preposterous, but at least the audience is able to experience his allure right along with his "victims."
Several members of the cast are Zeitgeist regulars and have an esprit de corps that brings an authenticity to the relationships. Adduci and Brown are the couple whose staid marriage moves them to seek stimulation outside of it; they are rehearsing together for a play, but Kathryn has designs on a final fling with George. Adduci knows how to play the woman who is tough and sardonic on the exterior, while showing a glimpse of her underlying longing. Colin is either distracted or very stiff upper lip about everything and Brown gives the appearance of being muddled quite convincingly. Houk has a field day with the sexist, egotistical Jack who expects his wife to be patient with his long-drawn attempts to end an affair. If this play were a panto, Jack is the character most likely to be booed.
Brown's put-upon wife fails to garner much sympathy even though she is a doormat for Jack and jealous of her spoiled daughter. In most of her scenes, she reacts to the cues of others and gets little traction as a character in her own right. Although he is a little more sympathetic, Reeves doesn't fare much better. Simeon's lot in life is to operate on the whims of Monica, so he is either down in the mouth or angry and confused. For her part, Smith conveys Monica's ambivalence clearly, but she doesn't show how she processes the choices she makes. Alana Osborn-Lief (Tilly) makes the briefest of appearances and has no lines, but manages to communicate the teenager's frivolity and mystery.
Scenic Designer David J. Miller creates a garden space with a terrace and faux stone walls which Lighting Designer Michael Clark Wonson helps to divide into separate settings for each of the couples. Fabian Aguilar dresses Colin, Kathryn, Jack, and Monica in simple, classic styles, but he makes Simeon look like The Farmer he is in newsy cap and high boots, and clothes Tamsin in colorful, quirky fashions. Under the dialect coaching of Lisa Rowe-Beddoe, the cast adopts British accents, some more consistently than others. Sound design is by J Jumbelic.
As director, Miller does a good job of advancing from one scenario to the next while characters come and go, as if employing more than one set. However, the first act moves at a snail's pace while everyone wrings their hands about poor George. As more conflict is introduced in the second act, the tempo picks up a little, but not enough. Unfortunately, the malaise that is prevalent in the lives of the characters we see overwhelms the easy and pleasant "life of riley" existence of the character we don't see. Even if we take vicarious pleasure from George's life, we already know that it's not for long.
Photo credit: Richard Hall/Silverline Images (Maureen Adduci, Shelley Brown)